School District to Study Possible Bond Election

Demographic study results, administrative reorganization also on the agenda

By Dana Trumbull

The Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board added an extra work session to their schedule this month, meeting Tuesday, March 12, to discuss three key topics: the formation of an election advisory committee to study the possibility of a capital bond election for November 2019; the results of a demographic study commissioned last fall; and a potential reorganization of administrative structure to be implemented upon the resignation of Assistant
Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Cruz, effective June 2019. A quorum of Board members, including President Jodi Ehrlich, Vice-President Cami Garcia and member Chelsea Connolly were present.

 Election Committee

The district is currently looking for an additional 15 people to serve on a 30 member Election Advisory Committee. The group will consist of certified and classified staff members, district administrators, parents and community members from Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and the unincorporated areas of the community. “The goal of the advisory council will be to look at the capital needs the district has identified, as well as the Maintenance & Operation (M&O) needs and, using that information, develop recommendations for a potential Capital Bond election in 2019,” said AJUSD Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson.

Apache Junction City Manager Bryant Powell has agreed to facilitate the study group. Several consultants have also agreed to assist free of charge, including Skip Brown, Valley Schools; Bryan Lundberg, Stifel; Paul Ulan, election consultant; Ben Barcon and Megan Griego, ADM Architects; and multiple contractors who are already in the process of conducting a comprehensive facilities review. Anderson said she anticipates having estimates for needed repairs by mid-April.

Meeting dates will be on Mondays, beginning April 8, with 5 two-hour meetings scheduled. Each meeting will be held at a different school and include tours of the facilities to allow members to inspect the identified needs.

A suggestion by Cami Garcia to also make facilities tours available to the public was met with favor.

Anderson stated that she hopes to include on the committee one or more “naysayers” who “might not be so gung-ho on a new tax,” so they also have an opportunity to ask questions.

During the Board discussion, Anderson said that, if the district does go out for a bond election, one of the challenges will be educating the public about past elections. “There is still some misinformation out there about an election that happened more than ten years ago.” In 2004, voters passed a capital improvement bond for $49,850,000. The bond monies were used to build the 9/10 and 11/12 buildings on the high school campus and the Four Peaks Elementary replacement school, as well as completing middle school renovations, purchasing and installing technology infrastructure and adding 15 buses to the district fleet. “We spent $38,250,000. We did not issue the remaining $11,600,000 in bonds, which were earmarked for a new high school in Gold Canyon. That’s $11.6 million that we did not spend and for which taxes were not levied. That is the money that many community members still believe we spent on other things.”

Members of the public who are interested in serving on the committee should contact Public Relations Director Sally Marks, 480-982-1110, or smarks@goaj.org.

Demographic Study

Last October, AJUSD commissioned Applied Economics to perform an analysis of population trends and enrollment projections. Rick Brammer, principal at Applied Economics, delivered the breakdown at Tuesday’s meeting, dissecting the district’s population in terms of where they live, age structure and alternative education providers, as well as the local housing supply and future projections.

He noted that, although open enrollment “and other impacts” have helped cause enrollment to go down, the change in the age of the general population has played a big role in the decline. In 2000, 19.1% of the population was under the age of 18, which is already lower than the Maricopa County average, which is just under 30%. Over the last 20 years, however, although the local population has grown, the percentage of school age children has dropped to 15.3%, while the “incredible increases in the 65+ population” have driven that segment of the local population from 28.6% to 33.7%.

Altogether, nearly 70% of households within the Apache Junction school district are over the age of 55 and likely have no school-age children at home, “Which makes it really hard to pass bonds, because so many people just don’t have a vested interest. It’s not what you’re doing, it’s just kinda your circumstances.”

Another factor at play is the drop in birth rate that commonly occurs during recessions. Statewide, this has been reflected in a decrease in kindergarten enrollment, starting about 2012-13. Brammer stated that demographers normally anticipate a “bump on the other side,” post-recession; however,  people are still dealing with debt and adult children living at home, etc. The birth rate has actually dropped another 9% over the last three years, which will affect kindergarten enrollment all the way out to 2022-23. “I don’t expect to see a big dip in the number of kindergarteners, but the percentage of them will go down, because the overall population is still growing.”

The low level of residential development has not significantly impacted enrollment; however, Brammer noted that there is potential for about 10,000 units to at least start building over the next ten years (this includes Superstition Vistas, south of I-60, as well as the build out in Peralta and Entrada Del Oro, where planned developments are beginning to start up again.) “As the land to the west of you develops, it is going to push development your way. Whether you want it or not, it is coming your way – but it will probably take a good ten years to really start seeing it.”

In 2000, AJUSD was serving 85.2% of student population. That number has since dropped to 55%, “but we know charter schools are beginning to saturate, so I don’t believe we will see that number continue to fall as fast as it has,” said Brammer. District enrollment has stabilized over the last few years, so, with the anticipated growth in development, “If we can hold this 55% number, then instead of having a loss of 200 students over the next ten years, it could be a gain of 200 or 300 students.”

Dr. Jennifer Cruz

District Reorganization

AJUSD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Cruz has turned in her resignation for the end of the 2018-19 school year. She will be returning to her previous employer, Pendergast Elementary School District, where she will serve as chief academic officer. “I am very happy for Dr. Cruz in her next adventure,” commented Dr. Anderson, “but I am very sad for AJUSD. Dr. Cruz has done wonderful things for our district in the last year and a half.”

With Cruz’s departure, Anderson informed the Board that she is considering a change in the administrative structure of the district in order to focus on academic achievement. “The first recommendation I have is to eliminate the assistant superintendent position and put more emphasis in educational services.”

Anderson is proposing to promote the current director of educational services, Heather Wallace, to an executive director position and add an educational services manager. “This would allow us to take some of the duties that Dr. Cruz currently possesses and put them back into or add them to educational services… specifically to help with our secondary curriculum, and professional development, as well as some additional support for special education at our secondary level.”

Cruz’s duties as the head of human resources would be moved to a new director of human resources, who would also take on responsibility for the payroll department.

Principal evaluations, previously performed by Cruz, would be assumed by Anderson.

“I will say that all of us at the district office; we basically have job duties that typically fall under two or three people, she commented. “I need to have people have more focus and not be spread so thin.”

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