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Loss of Students in N. AZ Public Schools May be Slowing

The sound of school buses is familiar during the school year. 

But residents of Chino Valley now hear those sounds only four days a week. 

Jon Scholl, with the Chino Valley Unified School District, says cutting back on bus service saved the district money. 

“We go to school Monday through Thursday," Scholl said. "It did not decrease the minimum number of minutes that we still need.  Whether you’re on a five-day week or a four-day week, it’s the same.  Our students just go to school a little bit longer to make up for that fifth day.”

A good part of the reason for the budget cuts is that Coconino and Yavapai counties have seen their populations shrink.  

When families leave, school enrollment drops.

Dave Smucker, is the Superintendent of the Prescott Unified School District.

“We have more students leaving this year," said Smucker. "We’ve probably lost 185…190 kids.  That adds up to $95,000.  That’s a large figure.  That’s money that we need to cut back from our budget”. 

The state of Arizona pays schools roughly four-thousand-dollars per student each year. 

When student numbers go down, schools lose a large piece of their funding. 

So schools must find ways to cut costs  while maintaining a quality education.

Mariella Bean, at The Humboldt Schools, says some of the cost cutting is not straightforward..

“If your enrollment goes down, sometimes you have to make adjustments in your staffing because you don’t need as many teachers, but they’re not all kids in one class who leave," she said. "So you might have 10 kids at one school, 15 at another, and sometimes it’s hard to reduce your staff accordingly.”

Labor is a school’s biggest expense. 

In these districts, salaries for teachers, administrators and support staff make up over 80% of their district’s expenses. 

This means reducing staff is necessary when cutting costs.

But when student numbers don’t drop enough to cut teachers, schools have to cut from other places. 

That’s one reason why Chino Valley dropped to a four-day school week.

Some schools are also outsourcing large portions of their support staff. 

They contract with private companies to provide groundskeepers, custodians, food servers and other positions.

This reduces costs such as benefits and payroll taxes. 

The Flagstaff Unified School District has seen a more drastic drop in population than Chino and Prescott.

And as a result it’s taken more drastic measures.   

F.U.S.D.’s Director of Finance Dr. Kenneth Garland:

“We closed four school operations," he said, "which was due to the enrollment decline that really had started at a small level way back in 2007 and 2008.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the schools in the area.

Some schools see this as an opportunity for reinvention. 

Prescott’s Superintendent Dave Smucker.

“Sometimes when you get into situations where you have to reduce, it’s not always a bad thing," Smucker said.  "You can get rid of some of the things that aren’t working, and it forces you to think creatively.  It forces you to think differently.”

And while enrollment is shrinking, it is shrinking more slowly.

Chino Valley’s John Scholl says Yavapai County enrollment is pulling out of the nose dive.

And he’s becoming hopeful.

 “Families who at one time left the area are coming back, and I hope that’s an indication that there’s more work here," he said.

It’s not clear the numbers will ever return to where they once were.

But if they do, administrators believe these past few years have better equipped their disctricts to be leaner and more nimble than they’ve ever been.