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Sun, May 26

Opinion: Demographic trends biggest threat to Sedona public education

We’ve come upon the one-year anniversary of the Sedona-Oak Creek School Board’s decision to close Big Park Elementary School. The resulting wounds to the Village of Oak Creek are slow to heal.

The folks in VOC have not forgotten. They have not moved on. The fact that the Arizona State Board of Education subsequently found Big Park Elementary and Clarkdale-Jerome School to be the only A-ranked schools in the Verde Valley last year only makes the closure a more-bitter pill to swallow for the VOC community. There is not much anyone can say to convince VOC residents that they did not receive a raw deal.

That’s understandable. Rallying the troops in the face of any kind of threat to a community institution such as a local school is basic human nature. The situation in VOC is not at all different from the threat residents in Clarkdale feel about school district consolidation. They are protective of what is theirs. When threatened, they will not go down without a fight.

In the Sedona-VOC case, though, the shuttering of Big Park School is not nearly as crucial an issue as is reversing the reasons the school board was forced to make that decision.

If current community trends continue over the next 10 years, it’s not just Big Park School, but the entire scope of traditional public education in the Sedona-VOC region that could fall by the wayside.

In the past 13 years, the Sedona-Oak Creek School District has seen its student population nearly cut in half from a high of 1,438 in 2006 to 764 students today.

Sedona is not alone when it comes to declining enrollment. The single-school K-8 Beaver Creek District has seen its student count drop from a high of 352 students in Fiscal Year 2008 to a current enrollment of 282 K-8 students. With a current enrollment of 1955 students, Cottonwood-Oak Creek has lost 443 students since the 2007-08 school year. As did Sedona-Oak Creek, Cottonwood-Oak Creek closed one of its campuses in the past year.

Sedona-Oak Creek has obviously been hit the hardest in this reshuffling of the demographic deck of cards. In pure dollars and cents, Sedona-Oak Creek’s district budget is about 53% of its 2006 budget, according to Director of Operational Services Jennifer Chilton.

With such a dramatic decline in revenue, something obviously has to give. In the Village of Oak Creek it was the Big Park School. Across the Verde Valley, it was Cottonwood Elementary School.

“It is not surprising in retrospect that with the economic recession begins SOCUSD declining enrollment, particularly with its impact on housing accessibility,” said Chilton. “Though the economy has been improved, the percentage of families with school-age children within our district did not rebound.”

Sedona-Oak Creek School Board Member Heather Hermen made a similar assessment a year ago when she shared that her 10-year-old son’s hopes of playing Little League baseball were not to be realized in Sedona because of a lack of players. It’s even worse this year as Sedona Little League officials have alerted parents that if their kids want to play baseball this summer they will have to join the Cottonwood Little League. According to Sedona officials, “we just don’t have enough participation and volunteers to make it work this year.”

Not enough kids. Not enough young families. Goodbye Little League. Will public schools be next?

We can all agree that closing the Big Park School was a horrible blow for the VOC community.

But if current trends continue in Red Rock Country, closing that one single school will be the least of the educational problems confronting the Sedona-Red Rock School District.

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