Mesa Unified School District has cut or reallocated $85 million over the last four years. And, the district expects to cut $40 million to $60 million of its 2011-2012 budget.
But now, the state Senate Education Committee chairman has told school officials they may need to make significant cuts the year after, and maybe the year after that.
In fact, Sen. Rich Crandall said there is a "nearly 100 percent chance" the district will have to cut $85 million over the next four years.
Arizona school districts need to brace for large-scale cuts for the foreseeable future, the Republican lawmaker and former Mesa governing board member told the newly formed Mesa Transforming Education Task Force on Thursday.
The education cuts set the stage for difficult times, but also set up opportunities for innovation and change.
Crandall challenged Mesa's task force to look beyond the six common budget cuts: reducing administration and teachers, eliminating programs, reducing salaries, increasing efficiencies such as bus routes, bonds and overrides, and increasing class sizes.
"All six combined won't get you to $85 million," Crandall said.
The task force, made up of educators, district staff, former board members and parents, is charged with coming up with budget-cutting ideas, as well as looking at new ways to deliver learning.
Arizona faces an $825 million shortfall in the current year and a $1.4 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Kindergarten-through-12th-grade funding is about 39 percent of the state's budget, making it a big target for cuts.
"Most people still think we're just going to come right out of this," Crandall said. "They don't think it's a permanent reduction."
But it will, in fact, take many years before the state returns to the revenue levels it saw before the recession, he said.
Crandall said it's time to look at changing how education is presented to students. That thinking is happening not just in Arizona, but across the country, with reformers such as former Washington D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush offered a welcome to members of the Mesa Transforming Education Task Force via a taped video during Thursday's meeting.
Crandall told task force members afterward that the district is taking a step in the right direction for education, one that will be closely watched by other Arizona districts.
Innovative education ideas include "blended" models that incorporate online opportunities in brick-and-mortar schools, such as the School of One, a public New York school, Crandall said.
At that school, students participate in teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, independent learning, including online work, and assignments with virtual tutors.
It follows how students learn today when they study on their beds or couches with music on their iPods, Facebook on the laptop or desktop, and texting on their cell phones.
There's the feeling that, "Even though I'm studying alone, I feel I'm with a group of people," Crandall said. "Our kids' brains are wired differently."