Parents, Students and Educators Face School Closures
By Sharyn A. White
It was the news that teachers, parents, and students had been expecting, yet dreading, for some time: the closure of their home school. Rumors had been circulating for many months that the Paradise Valley Unified School District was considering closing up to four elementary schools: Village Vista, Foothills, Sandpiper, Desert Springs. Under the pressure of a bad economy, declining student enrollment, and state budget cuts of more than $23 million over the last five years, the PVUSD was facing a serious budget shortfall of approximately $13 million. With the defeat of Proposition 204, an extension of the temporary state sales tax on food, the district was forced to make difficult decisions in order to make ends meet. The decision was made to close school(s) at a projected savings of $400,000-$600,000 per year.
The four schools under consideration for closure have had declining enrollment due to dramatic demographic changes:
Sandpiper Elementary at 67th St and Hearn Dr. in Scottsdale
Foothills Elementary at 44th St. and Bell Rd. in Phoenix
Village Vista Elementary at 42nd St. and Andora in Phoenix
Whispering Winds Academy at 43rd St. and Greenway in Phoenix.
These established neighborhoods have changed from young families to older folks with empty nests. During the height of the housing boom several years ago, homes became much too expensive for young families to buy. As a result, many older residents remained in their homes. The cost to maintain schools with such small enrollment was too much for the district to bear.
Community meetings were held in November and December to allow all stakeholders (parents, teachers, students, administration, community members) to be informed, ask questions, and voice concerns before the final meeting of the governing board.
The schools in danger of closure made valiant attempts to increase their enrollment by offering more classes, increasing the school day by 30 minutes and experimenting with unique and different ways to attract more students.
Two schools even changed their school names in an effort to become more appealing: Whispering Winds became Whispering Winds Academy. Desert Springs became Desert Springs Academy. Sandpiper began to offer Spanish immersion classes. For some schools, it helped slightly, but for others, it was not enough.
At the December 20, 2012 Governing Board special meeting, the board recommended the closing of Village Vista Elementary School and Foothills Elementary School. The board voted to approve the closing because both schools had the lowest enrollments in the district. Village Vista and Foothills would be closed for the 2013-2014 school year and their staff and students would merge with two other schools: Indian Bend and Whispering Winds Academy. Sandpiper and Desert Springs were spared.
Parents were notified of the decision by letter in December, 2012 from Dr. James P. Lee, superintendent of the PVUSD . For the parents and teachers, this was devastating news.
Jan Stevens, principal of Village Vista Elementary, will be moving to a new position as principal of Indian Bend Elementary. With the exception of three staff members, all Village Vista staff will move to Indian Bend Elementary.
Stevens is optimistic that the merging of Village Vista and Indian Bend will be smooth.
“We have a great staff here and I’m fortunate to be able to take most of them with me,” she commented. “I wish I could take them all.”
Diana McDaniel, media tech at Village Vista, is one of the three staff members that will be reassigned to another school. She recently learned that she will be working at North Ranch Elementary in fall 2013. Although disappointed to be leaving friends at Village Vista, she says she is grateful she’s still employed.
“Both of my girls attended Village Vista,” she said recently. “I began working there as a volunteer in the 1990s. The district hired me as a duty aide, part-time. After a few years, I was hired full-time as a media tech. I will miss all the people I worked with there; we were like family. I remember when our enrollment was so high, the school had to bring in portable classrooms to handle the overflow. That was back in the 90s. The enrollment was close to 1000 in that time period.”
The current enrollment at Village Vista is 330, with a student-teacher ratio of 15-1. Ideal ratio at this grade level is 25-1.
Until the move, she says she’ll be very busy: the school has until May 24 to separate books that are moving to Indian Bend and books to be disposed of by the district. McDaniel and some other campus assistants will be responsible for packing up the 25,000 books currently in Village Vista’s inventory.
“It’s going to be hectic’” she told me. “But I still have a job and I’m grateful for that.”
Marty Macurak, PVUSD’s communications officer, is the go-to person for this issue. “The closings in no way reflect on the performance of these schools,” Macurak said. “They are all high-performing schools with great staffs. The primary reasons for closure are the economy and declining enrollment. No employees will lose jobs. Everyone will be relocated to other schools.”
She explained that over the last 3 to 4 years, a committee made up of demographers, parents, and educators reviewed all four schools being considered for closure.
Taken into consideration were student enrollment, operating efficiency, cost to maintain schools and likelihood of the demographics changing in the near future, she said.
Housing trends showed the southern borders and older neighborhoods of the PVUSD have had the least amount of growth. The northeast boundaries of the district, including some homes in Scottdale, had the only significant growth. Accordingly, the schools in the older neighborhoods, with declining enrollment, were at the top of the list for closure.
Some homeowners in the area have unique viewpoints with regard to the closings: Katie Cole Walsh is a former student of Village Vista, a lifelong resident, and a former teacher as well. She still lives in the area and now has a school age child. Her mother also lives within the Village Vista boundaries and has lived there since before Walsh was born.
“It’s sad but not surprising” she said. “I went to Village Vista and I still live in the neighborhood. I know that this area has fewer families with young children.”
Walsh has some concern that the closure of the school could have a detrimental effect on property values. Having a school within walking distance is something realtors like to highlight when selling a home. She’s also concerned about the eventual decisions about what will replace her old school. The process to repurpose the closed schools has begun.
Everyone could know fairly soon: Macurak said that the review panel, composed of real estate experts and demographers, will hold meetings for community input. Ideas for repurposing will be formed based on neighborhood ideas. “By law,” she said “the district cannot sell the property without a vote by the area’s citizens. The district must also abide by zoning laws and if a decision is made that violates local zoning, the district Governing Board must apply to the city of Phoenix for a variance.” Applying for and obtaining a variance could take time.
According to press releases from the district, suggested uses for repurposing have come from parents and students as well as educators and neighbors at community meetings held recently.
- Establishing a First Things First program, which assists families with children under the age of 5 to prepare for kindergarten;
- Online classrooms and on-site instruction assistance- pvOnline program
- Summer school for children in Mascot Club (before/after school care for working parents);
- Tutoring center for district-wide assistance at different grade levels;
- Establish a Montessori preschool;
- Offer programs through City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department;
- A resource center for families that home school their children;.
The PVUSD board has assured parents and residents that the schools and grounds will be maintained as if they were open and not become abandoned. The board has also stated that it will not rent the property nor reopen it anytime in the near future. More information on the process can be obtained at a website set up by the district for anyone interested at http://www.pvschools.net/repurpose.
While the community awaits the decision, the schools are busy preparing for a long summer of transitions for staff, students and parents.