The Mesa Unified School District is outlining plans to cut 310 classroom teacher positions next year as it anticipates between $30 million and $60 million in budget cuts from the state and declining enrollment.
Another 130 certified staff positions - teacher coaches, mentors and others - may also be eliminated.
Superintendent Debra Duvall discussed the district's financial situation - and this "worst-case scenario" - Wednesday night during a meeting with about a dozen parents and school board members.
"Hopefully this is the worst case and it will get better," Duvall said.
Mesa Unified is not alone. Tuesday night, school leaders in the Scottsdale Unified School district, with about 26,000 students, outlined a plan that would cut 220 teaching positions for the next school year. Scottsdale has 1,700 teachers in the district.
Mesa Unified School District is the largest in the state, with nearly 70,000 students and 5,000 teachers.
Mesa Unified avoided teacher cuts this year when lawmakers told state agencies and public schools in January they would have to cut budgets to address a $1.6 billion deficit. Mesa's share was $9.8 million, more than staff anticipated, but workable since the district had already taken steps to save money this school year, Duvall said.
The state is projecting a $3 billion shortfall next fiscal year, which starts July 1. More than 50 percent of the state's budget goes toward public education, from kindergarten through the universities. If implemented, proposals from lawmakers could cut $1 billion from kindergarten through 12th grade education.
Kirk Hinsey, president of the Mesa Education Association, said the cuts next year will result in more students in some classes.
"It will have an impact," he said. "Most obvious will be larger class sizes. As professionals, we will continue to do the best job we can with the resources that are available."
Duvall said Wednesday there will be fewer classes in the district that fall far below the ideal student-teacher ratios.
Principal Julia Kelly, who opened Las Sendas Elementary School in 1997, said the district is doing the best it can to maintain services to students.
"The district is making every attempt to continue to provide the quality education and quality programs that we offer students here in Mesa," she said. "They will still have P.E. They will still have music. We will still have art."
Will Moore, the Arizona Education Association's consultant to the Mesa Education Association, said while the news about potential cuts is distressing, the fact that it's coming early is helpful.
Public school districts in Arizona are required by law to issue teachers contracts for the following school year by April 15.
"What Mesa and other districts are trying to get a hold of is a good idea of how many contracts they should be issuing in the first place," Moore said. "It's new ground for all Arizona districts of any size. They really are scrambling to get a good handle on this."
Lawmakers are in budget discussions for next year, with no immediate answers available. Everything from full-day kindergarten funding to elimination of a performance incentive program for teachers have been proposed.
Public school districts receive state funding based on enrollment. That creates a double whammy for Mesa, Duvall said. The district is projecting a drop of about 2,000 students next school year, above the nearly 5,000-student loss over the last five years.
Duvall said based on the potential "worse-case scenario," principals were told Tuesday to expect 150 teacher positions cut at the junior and senior high levels, 160 teacher positions cut from elementary and 130 certified personnel at the district level who fill nonclassroom roles, including teacher training.
Classified staff cuts are also expected.
Last month, 600 employees who are on a one-year-only contracts received a letter reminding them there is no guarantee their positions would continue to be funded next school year.
Should the district need to slash as much as it's anticipating, a majority of the teacher cuts will likely come from those employees, as well as through retirements and resignations. Should all that happen, Duvall said it's unlikely the district would have to lay off teachers.
The district is also taking a hard look at class schedules at the high schools. For the first time, those schedules will be planned on enrollment, Duvall said. Some electives that don't meet optimal class sizes may not be offered.
"They may have to go out and recruit" students to that class, she said. Or consider combining two classes together. In the past, Duvall has used the example of a fourth-year French class and a fifth-year French class. If there are not enough students for both classes, some high schools may consider putting all those students into one period during the school day.
Incoming superintendent Mike Cowan, who will take over Duvall's position July 1 after her retirement, was also at the meeting.
The district is awaiting word on how federal stimulus money may be used and when, Duvall said. The district's initial projection is to receive $33 million over two years. Should that money be available, some teaching positions may be saved.
"We're going to be very careful with our plans for next fall," she said. "We would rather go out in August and hire additional staff" if the numbers don't play out the way they're predicted.