Mike Cowan, associate superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, will succeed Debra Duvall as leader of Arizona's largest school system on July 1. The governing board voted 4-0 Tuesday night to appoint Cowan as the new superintendent. Board member Steve Peterson was out ill.
Duvall announced last fall she will retire June 30.
"During this time of budgetary and economic challenges, our district has need to appoint a superintendent," board member David Lane said before the vote. "I believe we have a candidate who will meet the high expectations."
Cowan received a standing ovation from the packed governing board room following the vote.
Cowan, 46, has been the associate superintendent of the nearly 70,000-student district since 2004. Before that, he served as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and director of science, social studies and world languages. He spent six years as a teacher in the district and three years as a science and social studies specialist.
All four of Cowan's children have attended or graduated from Mesa district schools.
After Duvall's retirement announcement, she endorsed Cowan for superintendent. The governing board announced last month that Cowan would be the first person interviewed for the job.
"Michael Cowan is one of our own, and I am very proud to say that he has loyally and effectively served Mesa Public Schools for two decades," board president Mike Hughes said. "He is a proven individual who has inspired trust and teamwork inside and outside this district. ... He fully grasps the challenges we truly face."
After Duvall expressed more praise for Cowan at Tuesday's meeting, she and Cowan embraced.
"I am humbled to follow the great people who have served our district," Cowan said. "Mesa Public Schools does have a proud tradition, and I'm honored to continue that tradition."
Cowan went on to express his belief in the district: "As we face the challenges of enrollment decline and unsurpassed financial challenges looming over our state, we face our own uncommon challenge. ... I believe through introspection ... we'll be able to chart a path strong and focused."
Among those challenges in the next few years, the Mesa district has seen a drop of enrollment, from nearly 74,000 students in 2004 to 69,700 students this school year. Projections show a decrease of another 2,000 students next year. The district projects a loss of nearly $10 million because of the enrollment drop.
The district already cut $20 million from its budget last summer and saw the state cut it another $9.6 million this month when lawmakers shaved $131 million from education funding for kindergarten through 12th grade across the state to help balance the budget. Some relief may come from the federal stimulus package, but the details are still being worked out.
Next school year, Mesa could see a loss of $30 million to $80 million between the enrollment drop and the potential cuts predicted by lawmakers to help balance next year's state budget, according to district officials.
School districts receive an average of $5,000 of Arizona state funding per student enrolled.
State lawmakers are still working on the budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Arizona may have a deficit between $2.2 billion and $3.3 billion.
Earlier this month, 600 Mesa district employees in one-year contracts were reminded their contracts are not guaranteed for next school year. District officials have already said if the state cuts are as deep as projected, there may be job losses. The Mesa district, with nearly 10,000 employees, is the largest employer in the city.
Another challenge the district faces is the renewal of the maintenance and operations budget override. In the fall, the district must ask voters to continue the override, in which homeowners approve taxing themselves to give the district additional dollars above what it receives from the state. Voters first approved an override in the district in 1995. Overrides must be renewed, and voters have approved the Mesa district's renewal every five years since then. If an override fails, it can be phased out, decreased by one-third over three years.
Mesa's override currently makes up $35.6 million of the district's $433 million operation budget.
Cowan is already working toward goals for the district through the strategic planning committee convened this year. The committee - made up of staff members, students, business leaders and community members - will revise the district's mission and vision statements. The committee sought out and received nearly 10,000 comments from the community about what's important for the district. Later this spring, the committee will present the draft statements to the community for more input.
Cowan first joined the school district in 1988. He has a bachelor's degree from BYU and master's and doctorate degrees from Arizona State University.
Mesa is not the only district undergoing a change of leadership. Dave Allison is in his first year as superintendent of the Gilbert Unified School District. Apache Junction Unified School District's governing board voted Tuesday night to approve Chad Wilson, associate superintendent of educational services, as the district's new leader on July 1.
Higley Unified School District has an interim superintendent, Denise Birdwell. The Higley board has not made a decision yet on a permanent superintendent.