Editor’s note: Herald/Review Media is continuing its in-depth series on education in Cochise County. This is the third segment of the series.
COCHISE COUNTY — After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic one year ago, schools across Arizona are confronted with a decline of enrollment and additional financial strain.
According to Arizona Department of Education Public Information Officer Morgan Dick, the total statewide enrollment for the 2020-21 academic year is 1,112,598, approximately 38,000 fewer students attending public schools than compared to 2019-20 total enrollment.
“States across the nation are seeing significant decreases in enrollment due to the pandemic,” said Dick in an email. “While we all agree that the best place for children to be is in a classroom (either virtual or in-person), many families have made the difficult decision to unenroll, homeschool or in some cases postpone preschool/kindergarten enrollment.”
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said student enrollment closely affects how much funding is allocated to a school or district for public education.
“The dollars do follow the students,” said Hoffman. “Any changes in enrollment does impact funding. We have received a significant amount of federal funding, (which) will be over $2 billion for both district and charters (schools) through Title 1.
“If they don’t have students who are a Title 1 district school or charter, they won’t be funded through that. We have set aside funds to supplement to make sure every district and charter has relief funding. It’s still really important that our schools have sustainable funding from the state.”
Title 1 is a federal aid program for schools in which children from low-income families make up a substantial total of the school’s enrollment.
According to an Arizona Department of Education March 11 press release, the federal American Rescue Plan (the $1.9 trillion COVIC-19 relief legislation passed earlier this month) provides approximately $2.6 billion in funding for Arizona K-12 education, with ADE allocating 90% of those funds directly to public schools.
Hoffman emphasized the importance of funding for public schools, especially with the additional cost in supplies and renovations needed to reopen schools safely during the pandemic.
“Think of the relief and demands for technology and laptops and making sure that (students) can learn from home,” Hoffman said. “That’s my concern that right now. Our schools need to have sufficient and supplemental funding more than ever before.”
Dr. Ellen Vujasinovic, education instructor at Cochise College, says there are numerous factors that could have caused the 30,000 decline in enrollment.
“With any changes in K-12 enrollment in any region, socio- economic factors come into play,” said Vujasinovic in an email. “I would imagine that COVID has played a role in pushing people out of Arizona due to job loss.
“In addition, COVID would have kept some students at home permanently whether they were being homeschooled, schooled virtually through a private academy or simply not attending traditional school.”
Dick added that enrollment in traditional school districts is also down.
“For the 2020-21 school year statewide enrollment at traditional districts is down approximately 6%, while charter schools saw an increase in enrollment of about 9%,” she said.
Hoffman said charter schools and traditional districts are both funded as part of public education in Arizona.
Hoffman attributes the decline in enrollment in public education to the pandemic, noting the domestic challenges of students’ mental health and parents having to adjust their work schedules to accommodate their children’s educational format.
“Every family has their own unique situation,” Hoffman said. “Some families are more concerned for their family being exposed to COIVD. Some have more of a strong need for their child to be in school on campus.
“For some families, they’ve decided to transfer their child based on what’s offered in in-person options ... These are very personal decisions for each family to make.”
Cochise County sees drop
According to ADE’s March 2 enrollment report for school year 2020-21, there are 17,812 students enrolled in Cochise County, 1,392 fewer that the 19,204 total from 2019-20.
Each district in the county reported having a decline in enrollment.
Douglas Unified School District
DUSD’s 100-day enrollment this year was 3,811, which included 92 pre-kindergarten students. Those numbers are down 294 from last year.
According to information provided to the Herald/Review by DUSD administrators, the biggest reason for the decrease in enrollment was COVID-19.
DUSD Superintendent Ana Samaniego says the Average Daily Membership of the district is 3,643.0148.
“ADM is a set amount per child,” Samaniego said. “So the less students, the less our budget capacity is. Our funding drastically reduced not only to low numbers, but also due to DUSD’s remote learning plan.”
The ADM trend from fall 2019-spring 2020 to 2020-spring 2021 has been from 3,800 to 3,600 showing a steady difference of 200 students
“We predicted enrollment for 2019 to be over 4,000 and once we knew schools for 2020 would remain online we predicted a loss of about 600 students,” she said.
Those predictions “were consistent” when compared to the enrollment numbers of the two years.
If COVID-19 is no longer a factor, DUSD officials anticipate an average of 3,600 to 3,700 students for 2021-22.
“Each year 10% of the students enrolled at DUSD are ‘new enrollments, “ Samaniego said. “In the last five years 3% of DUSD students transferred to a private or charter school.”
According to the superintendent, DUSD’s plan going forward to increase ADM and enrollment “is to promote the return to in-person learning and our school programs, reach out to families and students who were not participating this academic year, promote our Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, and Health Life emphasis at DUSD. DUSD is planning on a marketing strategy to get students to enroll. We realize that many families have left town and may not ever come back, but we have to have our community realize the importance of students being in school.”
Sierra Vista Unified School District
According to SVUSD Public Information Officer Valerie Weller, total enrollment for the 2020-21 school year is 4,900 students, 600 students less than the 2019-20 school year (5,500 students total) and 700 less than in 2018-19 (5,608 total).
“This past year has been difficult and different for all of us across all parts of our lives, our current enrollment is a direct reflection of this turbulent year,” said SVUSD Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes in an email. “Our community has been extremely supportive of our district as we have navigated through this together.”
Holmes attributes the decline in enrollment in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 has played a huge part in our enrollment this year,” said Holmes. “Many parents did not feel safe sending their student to school because of the potential risk of contracting COVID. Some students live with high-risk parents or guardians with underlying medical conditions and are more vulnerable to COVID.
“Some of our students themselves have underlying medical conditions and parents opted for other school formats such as online or homeschooling.”
Holmes said another aspect of the decline in enrollment is due to the decrease in the county population.
“We have also seen an overall decrease in the county population, so that has led to less enrollment,” he said. “A current prediction from the city of Sierra Vista has indicated a growth of 1.5% in population in the next few years with the demographics being primarily those people who are retiring versus those families with school age children.
“The loss of workforces like Northrop Grumman and the more limited traffic though Fort Huachuca because of the pandemic has also exaggerated our decline in enrollment.”
Holmes confirmed that decreased enrollment leads to decreased funding.
“Unfortunately, less enrollment does mean less funding,” said Holmes. “While many factors like population decline and workforce closures are beyond our control there are many things we are doing to increase our enrollment and the quality of the education for our students.”
Holmes said that SVUSD is taking a multi-avenue approach to boosting enrollment in the district. He said the district is in the process of purchasing a new math and English language arts curriculum and started two new programs.
“We have recently started a Creative Arts Learning Lab to bring arts back into our elementary and middle schools, as well as a new art program that will be implemented in all of our elementary schools this week,” said Holmes. “Our new Summer Academy is also new program we are starting this summer. The Summer Academy is designed to offer remediation opportunities for students who need it and enrichment opportunities for those that want it.”
Holmes said the Summer Academy is offered to parents and students as a token of gratitude for their continued support during the pandemic.
“We know that this past year has been difficult and the Summer Academy is our way of thanking our students and parents for their support by offering this opportunity to brush up on needed skills and have some fun along with way,” said Holmes. “We will continue to look for new ways to improve the lives and education for our students.”
Benson Unified School District
Benson Unified School District Superintendent Micah Mortensen is reporting a slight dip in the district’s 100-day enrollment numbers, which is mostly attributed to COVID. Now that pandemic numbers are decreasing, he feels the school district will see improvements in enrollment next year.
“Our numbers have dropped in comparison to last year’s numbers. COVID is playing a huge part in this,” he said. “We are down around 70 students from last year.”
Like others, he blamed the pandemic for the drop.
“In our opinion the biggest variable has been COVID,” he said. “Another variable could be the number of people moving out of the area. Generally though, this is offset by people moving into the area. COVID has been the biggest ‘unknown’ in so many ways.”
The future will depend on a move to normal.
“A lot will depend on what happens next school year,” he said. “We believe that as things begin to normalize, more and more of our students will return to in-person learning.”
St. David/Valley Union/Pearce
Kyle Hart, superintendent of St. David, Valley Union and Pearce Elementary School Districts, said enrollment was down in his schools as well.
“At all three districts, our enrollment as of August, 2020 was down compared to the previous year. However, as we have continued to keep the in-person learning option available at all three districts, the enrollment has increased.
The unknown and uncertainty caused by the school shutdowns and regulations was a big contributor to the lower enrollment at the beginning of the school year. The increase throughout this current school year is due to all districts providing in person learning throughout.
Valley Union has been in-person since September 8 with two short term shutdowns.
Pearce has been open since September 8 with no shutdowns to in-person learning.
St. David has been open since August 17 with no shutdowns.
Our student count each year is the main factor that drives our budget formula. These numbers are funded by a combination of local and state taxes.
All districts are trending in the positive direction, especially within the dates of September 2020-March 2021.
There was so much unknown with how students and parents were going to choose to handle their education this year, that I didn’t really have any estimates on this year’s enrollment. However, assuming we will be able to continue to provide in-person learning, I estimate that all 3 districts will increase for the 21-22 school year.”
Hart states that at Pearce, the average enrollment the last five years is 114 students and the percentage transferring to charter/private schools is less than 1%.
“We plan to continue to provide a complete education with a welcoming and positive school climate,” he said. “We currently have approximately 40% of our students being out of the district. We will need to continue working hard to be able to be a draw for these students and families that live out of our district due to the fact that we have a limited number of students that live within our district boundaries.”
At Valley Union, the average enrollment over the last five years is 130 students and the percentage transferring to charter/private schools has been less than 1%.
“We plan to continue to work on improving our school culture,” the superintendent said. Also, through partnerships, we hope to continue to free up funding to attract and retain a good teaching staff. We also will evaluate what may be possible to add to our students’ options (education as well as extracurricular). Keeping the small school atmosphere while adding options for our students will be one of our goals moving forward.”
At St. David, the average enrollment the last five years has been 384.
The percentage transferring to charter/private schools is less than 1%.
“Through partnerships as well as shared services, we hope to continue to increase our teacher pay,” Hart said. “Teachers are the most important aspect of good schools. Increasing pay and improving school culture will attract and retain good teachers to St. David. Attracting and retaining good teachers will improve all aspects of a school district and in turn increase our enrollment going forward.”
Bisbee Unified School District
Jennifer McBeth, director of instruction for BUSD, said, “based on communication with families that have not enrolled at BUSD this year, some of the reasons are: Moving out of town or out of state, enrolling in an online public school until COVID-19 is no longer a threat and choosing to homeschool until COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
“We do not expect that the families that have moved will return, but many of the families that have chosen an online school or homeschool have indicated that they will return to BUSD when things are more back to normal.
“We will continue to communicate our mitigation plan and our instructional model’s changes throughout our eventual transition to more in-person learning.”
Fort Huachuca Accomodation School
“To start the school year, our enrollment was down just over 5%,” said Fort Huachuca Accommodation School Superintendent Mark Goodman. “As the year progressed, we have an increase in our student count, but we are still down.”
The reasons are familiar.
“Much of the state has seen a decrease in enrollment and we are no different,” he said. “Due to COVID and since kindergarten is not mandatory in Arizona, some of our enrollment decline at first was with our kindergarten classes. As the year has progressed, we have seen this enrollment increase and stabilize.
“The second major area of decline was a result of a district’s decision to limit open enrollment so that we could properly implement our COVID-19 mitigation plan, spacing students six feet apart, and open our doors for in-person instruction.
“Many districts across the state lost enrollment to organizations that were open for in-person instruction or that may have had more experience in operating an online curriculum. Since our district was open for in-person instruction from the very start we did not experience the same type of decline.”
Goodman believes enrollment will improve after addressing concerns about educaton during the pandemic.
Tombstone Unified School District
“Our 100-day enrollment is 839 this year, and was 864 last year,” said Tombstone Superintendent Robert Devere. “So, we’re down by 25 students. Our district is losing about $90,000 this year because of the drop in enrollment.
“The biggest variable was COVID. Parents with younger children kept them out of school at a higher rate than parents with older students.”
Devere echoed the sentiments of other educators planning ahead and the end of the pandemic.
“I’m looking forward to a much better 2021-2022 school year as things return back to normal. With COVID numbers dropping, we’re hoping our schools can return to the way we used to do things,” he said.
“Having said that, COVID has caused some things to change forever. For example, we will always be employing virus mitigation practices in our school district.”
Dick said that ADE is committed to help districts re-engage students in their public schools through a new statewide marketing campaign. He said ADE is committing a minimum of $150,000 for a statewide marketing campaign aimed at re-engaging students with their public schools.
Hoffman said the campaign, in the preliminary planning stages, is aimed at informing families about the importance of public education through a bilingual format in English and Spanish.
Hoffman hopes that the campaign will run in the summer.
Hoffman concludes that ADE hopes to address the decline in enrollment through the new marketing campaign, partnering with school social workers and counselors to provide more mental health resources to students and their families, and coordinate with local districts to help them reach out to students who aren’t enrolled in school in their area.
Vujasinovic of Cochise College said that decreased enrollment has a notable impact on teachers.
“Any time that enrollment is down, we see a decrease in funding from the state,” said Vujasinovic. “If there’s a decrease in funds available to a school, we often see a myriad of effects on teachers (indirectly or directly) such as decreased funding for salaries, curricular materials, technology materials, professional development opportunities, paraprofessional staff and other support personnel, electives and extracurricular activities.”
She continued, “Teaching conditions may be poor as a result of these cuts. Unfortunately, many teachers can become disillusioned with poor teaching conditions and subsequently leave the profession altogether. This has led us where we are today in Arizona: short of teachers.”
Herald/Review reporters Summer Hom, Bruce Whetten, Dana Cole, Shar Porier and Lyda Longa contributed to this story.
COCHISE COUNTY — Sheriff Mark Dannels, along with several other individuals, has been dismissed from the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a bipartisan panel put in place by the Obama and Trump administrations.
The “pink slip” to Dannels and about 29 other members of the advisory group was a letter dated March 26 from Alejandro Mayorkas, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas was recently appointed by the Biden administration to head the federal agency.
While thanking members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council for their dedication and support, Mayorkas told the group he was ending their term, effective the same date as the letter.
“In the service of an orderly transition to a new model for the HSAC, I have ended the term of current HSAC members effective March 26, 2021. I will reconstitute the HSAC in the next few weeks, once the new model has been developed ... ,” Mayorkas says in the letter, which was obtained by the Herald/Review.
At the end of the one-page missive, Mayorkas added: “I look forward to working with you in the future, whether as a member of a redesigned and reconstituted HSAC, or in a different capacity, as we together seek to advance the Department’s noble mission.”
According to an article in the Washington Post last week, “Former Department of Homeland Security officials and advisory board members who worked under Democratic and Republican administrations said they could not remember so many members being dismissed at once, as the general practice of past administrations was to allow appointees to serve out their terms before replacing them.
“The council is unpaid and includes leaders from state and local government, law enforcement, the private sector and academia who advise the agency on issues such as immigration, terrorism, crime and national disasters. Members serve one- to three-year terms and meet about four times a year.”
Dannels and others who sat on the HSAC have been critical of the Biden administration and its policies regarding undocumented migrants coming into the U.S. through Mexico. A week before Mayorkas sent out the letter, Dannels had participated in a press conference at the border in Douglas that included Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-FL, a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security. Both Ducey and Scott lambasted Biden and Mayorkas for being out of touch with what’s happening on the Southwest border and called on them to visit the area.
Dannels was appointed to the HSAC by the Trump administration. But other longer-serving members had been appointed under former President Obama, said Chad Wolf, the former acting secretary of Homeland Security, on Fox News.
In a letter he is planning to send to Mayorkas, Dannels expressed his chagrin with the action taken by the new secretary. The sheriff said he and other border sheriffs have had a good relationship with the Department of Homeland Security and it was disappointing to see Mayorkas’ “lack of engagement” with that group.
Dannels added that communicating with Mayorkas’ staff is not the same as speaking with him directly, because staff can act as a “filter.”
The sheriff encouraged Mayorkas to reconsider the dismantling of the HSAC, and “without delay,” to begin communicating with border sheriffs.
In a text message to the Herald/Review this weekend, Dannels called Mayorkas’ purge “sad.”
Wolf, who resigned as acting secretary of Homeland Security in January after the violence that erupted at the Capitol, told Fox News on Monday that Mayorka’s decision is “unprecedented.”
“The entire council was fired,” Wolf told reporters. “ ... Some were holdovers from the Obama administration. It’s supposed to be bipartisan ... they’re supposed to provide unvarnished advice, not act as an echo chamber.”
Wolf said there were a handful of projects or “efforts” currently ongoing with the dismissed HSAC that would likely be stopped.
“It’s very concerning,” he said.
Media relations representatives in Mayorkas’ office did not return an email or a phone call for comment to the Herald/Review on Tuesday.