Kyrene Board ready to review cost-cutting proposals

By Doug Snover

The first recommendations from a committee studying programs at Kyrene schools are expected to hit the Governing Board on Tuesday (March 8) with a bang.

Proposals to increase class periods from 45 to 68 minutes and reduce orchestra, band and chorus instruction in Kyrene’s middle schools have struck a sour note with some parents in the Kyrene Corridor.

One parent is circulating an email survey to parents of Kyrene students in hopes of documenting opposition to reduce music programs from daily to every-other-day classes.

“It makes a big difference when kids don’t practice their instruments every day,” said Mckell Keeney, who hopes to reach thousands of parents with her email survey before Tuesday’s Board meeting.

Keeney said she has attended several public meetings to debate proposed changes to the Kyrene schools programs, but is not sure parents are being heard.

“We haven’t heard anybody yet say they like this plan,” she said. But “from the meetings, it seems they are just forging ahead regardless of what’s being said to them.”

A survey documenting parents’ objections “is about all I have left,” she said.

Board members meet at 7 p.m. in the Governing Board Room at the Ben Furlong Education Center, 8700 S. Kyrene Road, Tempe.

Maria Menconi, Kyrene superintendent since 2002, could not be reached to clarify which of the K-8 Programming Study’s recommendations she will forward to the Board on Tuesday.

The Kyrene School District last year created the K-8 Programming Study Committee comprised of parents, teachers, principals, support staff and administrators to begin a three-year review of all programs offered by the district.

The impetus for the study is declining enrollment that leads to less state funding for the district.

“Kyrene’s season of growth has ended,” said Johnny Cruz, the district’s communications manager.

Enrollment in Kyrene schools peaked in the 1999-2000 school year at 18,614 and has dropped to 17,470 in the 2004-05 school year, a 6.1 percent decline, according to budget numbers posted on Kyrene’s website, www.kyrene.org.

This year’s budget of $88.65 million is approximately 2.4 percent bigger than the 2003-04 budget of $86.59 million, with 66.2 percent of the current budget going to instruction, just over 12 percent spent on operations and maintenance and the remainder for various support programs, administration and transportation.

”Expenses are going up and revenue is going down,” Cruz said. “Certain things are no longer as affordable as they used to be.”

The bywords of the K-9 Programming Study are “effectiveness” and “efficiency.”

A review of preliminary recommendations sent to Menconi indicates the single-biggest cost-savings could come from switching middle school schedules from seven to five periods per day and emphasizing math and language arts over electives such as music.

Kyrene currently does not meet state standards for the amount of time middle school students spend in class each day, the study notes. The Arizona Department of Education mandates that middle school students spend 356 minutes (5.93 hours) in class each day but Kyrene averages only 342 minutes (5.7 hours) per day.

Switching to a 5-period day would increase classroom time for seventh and eighth grade math, science, and social studies classes, but would reduce the amount of time students spend in elective classes.

The reduced time students spend in orchestra, band and chorus classes could be made up by having children practice at home, the study suggests.

“Keeney, who has sent four children through the Kyrene system, said many students won’t practice after school hours.

Music training often helps children in math classes, said Keeney, who has tabbed her efforts “Electives Count!”

“As one of the parents said, ‘We can’t cut our way to greatness,’” she said.

Although much of the community reaction has focused on music classes, “It’s a lot bigger than that,” Cruz said of the study.

“Everything has been looked at,” he said.

The recommendations sent to Menconi are divided into six categories: 

Instructional Time Allocation; Calendar Items; Current and Alternative Elementary Models; Middle School; Administrative; and Support Services.

Many of the recommendations are said to be “cost neutral,” such as a proposal to change early release days from Fridays to Wednesdays.

The biggest money savings proposed is the switch from seven periods per day to five. By so doing, an estimated 17 teaching positions could be eliminated for an annual savings of $765,000, according to the report.

Some of those teachers could remain with the district in other positions if they are qualified to teach more than one area, Cruz said.

Switching physical education, music and art classes to a six-day rotation could eliminate 10 full-time positions for an annual savings of $450,000, the report suggests.

Wrote one parent responding to Keeney’s survey:

“I do NOT SUPPORT laying off any teachers! I would prefer to see some of the upper level administrative positions at the District Office eliminated prior to reducing teaching staff. With a nation of obesity and the increase of disease, malnutrition, and poor diet, the last thing we need to do is tell our children that the lowest priority of their education is health and physical fitness.” 

Others who responded to the anonymous survey suggested the Kyrene district consider merging with Tempe’s school districts to save costs.

“When are we really going to start asking the tough question of combining Tempe Union, Kyrene and Tempe schools to one district like Mesa and Chandler?” one asked.

“Our costs as taxpayers for paying three administrations is crippling our competitiveness. Combining the three districts would allow more money to be directed at the children and the teachers.”