At least 171 teachers and school staff have lost their jobs, due to pandemic-related drops in enrollment, and more layoffs could be on horizon. ABC15 has learned educators say the layoffs are unnecessary, and will have devastating effects on the quality of public education.
On Friday, Gilbert Public Schools notified 152 teachers and staff their contracts would not be renewed. In February, Cave Creek Unified School District eliminated 19 jobs, according to governing board documents.
Both districts cited budget shortfalls due to a drop in student enrollment. School officials say, nearly every district in the state is facing a similar dilemma.
According to the Arizona School Boards Association, nearly 40,000 children became "ghost students" this year. They simply didn't show up for school, and no one knows exactly what happened to them.
"Nobody believes the students have left the state, but will they come back to where they have traditionally come back to... which is their neighborhood schools?" said Chuck Essigs, spokesman for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
Nearly half of the enrollment drops have come from children in kindergarten and first grade, suggesting some parents may have held their children back, waiting out the pandemic. While charter schools have seen a slight increase in enrollment -- about 18,000 additional students -- it's not enough to account for the missing students.
As school districts try to assess their budget for next year, those enrollment drops are forcing some districts to cut costs, and staff cuts are inevitable.
"Eighty five percent of our budget is people. Our greatest asset are the minds hearts and spirits of our people," said Manny Valenzuela, superintendent of the Sahuarita School District south of Tucson. "To the extent that we can try to protect that when we continue to thrive and grow and be successful." Valenzuela said the district hopes to make the cuts through attrition, but the impact will still be fewer teachers, and larger class sizes.
In Chandler, one of the state's largest districts, administrators have identified $11 million in staff cuts to balance the budget, but the district says any talk of layoffs is "premature."
School officials say there's no need for cuts or layoffs. Despite the pandemic, the legislature faces a budget surplus. The state also has a billion dollar rainy day fund and billions more from federal stimulus dollars. Some of the federal funds are meant to stave off "devastating layoffs," according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education.
School officials say the cuts could set districts back years, similar to the way the legislature slashed education budgets in the wake of the great recession. "The last thing you want to see in Arizona is something that's going to be so bad, so hard, where districts have to layoff teachers, have to cut programs," Essigs said. "It's going to happen to take another six to eight years to get back to where we were before COVID hit us."
ABC15 has reached out to the governor's office, asking if he's willing to fund districts at pre-pandemic levels, until the state knows whether students will return to the classroom in the fall. Despite multiple attempts, ABC15 got no response.