Diane Muelemans

Diane Muelemans, assistant superintendent for business services, discussed the state of Tempe Union's finances last week.

Tempe Union High School District has dodged a couple budget bullets and appears on course to end the current school year with a surplus.

The good news came last week during the Governing Board’s budget briefing by Diane Muelemans, assistant superintendent for business services, who attributed the break to several factors – particularly the closing of Compadre High School and the fortuitous retirement and/or voluntary departure of employees representing 28.6 full-time equivalent positions. 

Those departures equaled just over $3.9 million in savings and were enough to turn the district’s fortunes dramatically around for the coming school year.

District spokeswoman Megan Sterling noted the reduction in force among the district’s personnel ranks, mostly teachers, “was achieved through a combination of retirements, transfers, and natural attrition. We have not had to RIF.” 

RIF is a common acronym for reductions in force achieved by layoffs and furloughs.

Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil also took a moment during the board meeting to sound a celebratory note on that news, noting that much of the early forecasted budget impact “was handled and adjusted through attrition. I think that alone is a success story.”

“I do want to say, though, that this is a really, really solid good report considering what other districts are facing in terms of budget reductions,” Mendivil said, noting Gilbert Public Schools’ recent decision to not renew the contracts of 154 teachers for the coming school year to cover state reimbursement losses stemming from an enrollment loss of about 1,600 students this school year.

 “We are in a very fortunate situation financially in spite of a pandemic and the gradual decline of our enrollment where we have two funding areas where we have surplus.”

That was accomplished, he added, partly by “right sizing” teaching staff for the first time in four years to account for that enrollment loss.

The closing of Compadre High, which has seen a steady and significant enrollment decline over recent years, affected 25.5 teaching positions. But retirements and other voluntary departures made that a wash, since the Compadre teachers are being shifted to the vacancies those departures leave behind. Four positions in the district’s central office also were eliminated for a savings of $191,000.

Compadre’s programs are being shifted to Marcos de Niza High School. What will happen to the Compadre school building, located next to Tempe Union’s district headquarters, has not yet been decided.

It was only a few months ago that Tempe Union was looking at a deficit of between $2 million and $3 million created by several factors, including enrollment decline and the lower reimbursement rate paid for students in online learning.

District data shows that by the time the current school year ends, in-class learning will have accounted for only 52 days – 28.9 percent of the mandatory 180 days of instruction. There was no in-class learning option for five months of the district’s 10-month school year.

But it was the change in personnel counts that gave the district a surplus projected at just under $1.65 million.

“This money can be spent on everything but because we do have other funds that are available for our teachers and support staff, this is a projected amount that’s available for classified and administration, Muelemans said.

Development of the 2020-21 budget is far from over, she noted, largely because the Legislature has not yet formally begun work on the state’s budget.

“Right now, the Legislature hasn’t told us what they’re doing with their budget and therefore how it will impact our budget,” Muelemans told the board. “We believe at this point that we have included what’s going to end up coming to us, but it’s sometimes hard to predict what they do down there at the Capitol.”

Board Vice President Andres Barraza noted that as the Legislature barrels toward the conclusion of its session, “it’s always a running-out-the-clock” situation.

Muelemans also tamped down any hope for an enrollment increase that would yield a greater reimbursement by the state.

She said what “was predicted and projected is that we will be declining again next year and for several years moving forward. 

“The decline is not as great as this year has been but it really depends on who actually comes and attends our schools and it’s really kind of hard to predict,” Muelemans said. “I’m thinking that even if our enrollment is down, if we get the online students to come back to brick and mortar, I think that will help us.”

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