Mesa should consider college-style lecture classes for its high schools, lower class sizes for younger students, larger class sizes for older students, and technology to provide self-directed learning, according to a group of parents, teachers, community leaders and former board members.

The Transforming Education Task Force for the Mesa Unified School District gathered Thursday in its second meeting to help the district prioritize programming as it prepares to cut between $40 million and $70 million next school year, and maybe again the year after that.

Superintendent Mike Cowan asked the group of about 40 volunteers to consider class sizes, kindergarten programming and teacher and staff salaries during their first group discussions. The district has cut or reallocated more than $85 million in the last few years. With much of its funding coming from the state, and Arizona facing a $1.4 billion shortfall next year, the district expects to continue cutting for the foreseeable future.

But Cowan told the group there may be an opportunity for educational innovation as the district navigates the tough future.

More than 90 percent of the district’s budget is made of salaries and benefits for its staff, assistant superintendent Gerrick Monroe told the group. The staff presented a few “fast facts” about the budget, including what would happen if average class ratios were increased by two students. If it were done districtwide, there would be a savings of about $8 million.

But task force members also heard about the increased accountability measures coming to Arizona with the national Common Core Standards. Many felt it is prudent for the district to keep ratios low in kindergarten through second or third grade, but said class sizes could then be increased in the higher levels, particularly junior high and high school.

Lots of the debate surrounded full-day kindergarten. If the district went to half-day programs, it would save about $8.1 million.

While some task force members were staunchly against full-day programs, others again pointed to need to have kids reading by third grade or risk being held back under new state law.

Members of the group brought up other ideas, including an early-retirement incentive, knocking down walls to create larger rooms for lectures, eliminating separate elementary teachers for art, music and physical education and having high school service learning students help in the younger grades.

Task force members will meet again Thursday, where they will be asked to prioritize a list of possible budget-saving ideas presented to them. The governing board will make the final decision this spring.

The public can submit ideas to the district at www.mpsaz.org.

CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6549 or mreese@evtrib.com

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