Principal Heather Wallace was supposed to read a letter to the kids attending an assembly May 13 at Superstition Mountain Elementary School, but she turned over that duty to music teacher Pam Turner.
Superstition Mountain’s last day of school is May 21. After that, it will close as part of an effort by the Apache Junction Unified School District to make up a $2.7 million budget shortfall for the 2015-16 school year.
Looking at all the smiling faces of her students at that morning’s gathering in the school gym, Mrs. Wallace was too choked up at that moment to speak at the assembly intended to help students with their relocation this fall to one of the remaining elementary schools. One way to do that was to represent the schools as camps.
The letter, according to the assembly script, was left by the folks at “Camp Superstition,” which had shut down.
“Dear Camp Principal Wallace: We are very sorry that Camp Superstition has been closed,” Mrs. Turner read to the students. “We all loved this camp, and although we are sad about its closing, we have made arrangements for all of you to go to other camps this summer. Please know that we are very excited for you to go to your new camps, and that you will still have a fun and happy time. You will go to new places, make new friends and learn new things.”
The letter ended with an announcement that Principal Wallace would still be involved in the students’ schooling as she had been appointed the director of education services for the school district. The letter referred to her new position as “the director of all the camps.”
AJUSD serves more than 5,000 students in a 217-square mile area that includes the communities of Apache Junction, Gold Canyon, Peralta Trail, Queen Valley and the unincorporated areas of the Superstition Mountain foothills. It has four elementary schools: Desert Vista, 3701 E. Broadway Ave.; Four Peaks, 1785 N. Idaho Road; Peralta Trail, 10965 E. Peralta Road in Gold Canyon; and Superstition Mountain, 550 S. Ironwood Drive, as well as Cactus Canyon Junior High School, 801 W. Southern Ave., and Apache Junction High School, 2525 S. Ironwood Drive.
At their March 4 meeting, members of the school district’s governing board approved the closure of Superstition Mountain as well as the adoption of a four-day work week as part of an effort to resolve the $2.7 million budget shortfall.
Last year, the school district and governing board had proposed a 15 percent school budget override as one way to trim $2.7 million from the district’s 2015-16 budget. During the Nov. 4 general election, voters failed to pass the override that would have raised approximately $3.2 million each year. The override received 6,065 “yes” votes and 7,946 “no” votes, according to the Pinal County elections website: http://pinalcountyaz.gov/elections/Pages/ElectionResults.aspx.
Attempts at a budget override have had a history of passing and failing. In May 1999 the district passed its first override, according to an article that ran Oct. 6, 2010 in the Independent.
In May of 2003, AJUSD successfully renewed the override, which would run at the full 10 percent amount through 2007-08, according to the article. In May 2007, November 2007 and November 2009 AJUSD was unsuccessful in renewing its override, which led to the phase-down beginning in 2008-09 and completing in 2010-11, according to the article.
Another attempt to pass an override in 2010 also was unsuccessful, according to an article recapping Apache Junction’s top 10 stories for 2010 that ran in the Dec. 29, 2010 issue of the Independent.
Prior to the March 4 meeting, the governing board had prepared new boundaries to determine to which school SMES students would be relocated. The new boundaries place projected enrollment between 750 and 800 at each elementary school, school district spokeswoman Dana Hawman said in an e-mailed response to questions.
All the students in the school’s special education program will be relocated to classrooms at the high school. During earlier community meetings, parents had expressed their concerns that the close-knit group would either be split up or students would be subjected to long bus rides to Peralta Trail.
No teachers were laid off as part of the closure, Principal Wallace said during an interview after the assembly. All the teachers were placed at their first choice of school in the district, she said.
After the decision was made to close SMES, school administrators created a packing schedule to follow to reduce the amount of stress that could be expected during the closure process, Principal Wallace said.
She said the school’s 110 or so teachers and support staff have experienced emotional highs and lows since the closure was proposed, and added staff members have been very supportive of each other.
Mrs. Turner, who wrote the script for the assembly, said the focus now is on the kids.
“We did everything we could (to try to keep the school open). It’s not the district’s fault. We are holding our heads up high and putting on a positive face for our kids. We want them to know we will be there for them wherever we go,” Mrs. Turner said during an interview after the assembly.
Mrs. Turner said she began working on the script shortly after the closure was confirmed. The school holds an annual end-of-year assembly, she said, but she was determined to ensure this year’s get-together would encourage the students to continue to be high-achievers and instill in them what they’re capable of doing.
In one rhythmic and musical skit, a group of about 10 teachers said what they might do if they were not a teacher. Dressed in the appropriate gear, the teachers represented a band leader, a golfer, a rock star, a police officer, a cheerleader and a pizza-maker, among other careers. The children whooped with laughter when one teacher, who said she could be a swimmer, had a bucket of water poured over her head by a fellow teacher.
The children were then introduced to life at Camp Peralta Trail, Camp Desert Vista and Camp Four Peaks. In another set of humorous sketches, the students were reassured life would remain the same no matter which camp they attended. The teacher/campers gobbled up bowls of spaghetti and Jell-O for lunch, performed acrobatics and feats of skill such as chugging milk and breaking pencils to the theme from the movie “Rocky,” and sang school songs.
The “camp leaders” — principals Brenda Farris from Four Peaks and Pat Smith from Desert Vista — also addressed the kids.
Mrs. Turner said most of the students had met the principals since the school closure was announced. Seeing them again at the assembly helped to make them comfortable with their future school principal.
Natalie Clement will step in July 13 as the new principal at Peralta Trail. She will replace Principal Heidi Golemon who is leaving to pursue other career opportunities, according to a press release.
Parents and students also had an opportunity to tour their new schools and meet their new teachers during open houses held May 13 on each of the three elementary school campuses.
Not all SMES students will move on to other schools in the district. SMES parent Mindy Kerkes has enrolled her 6-year-old twins at Noah Webster charter school at 7301 E. Baseline Road in Mesa.
“I think they’ll get a better education there,” she said during a phone interview.
Had SMES remained open, she would have kept her daughters there, she said. However, once the closure was announced, Mrs. Kerkes opted to send the girls to the charter school where, she said, the children of a neighbor are doing well.
Mrs. Turner, a 35-year veteran of the Apache Junction school district, said the children will receive a good education wherever they go.
“We have an exceptional staff and awesome schools,” she said.
To read documents detailing the new school boundaries, bell schedule and calendar, visit the school district website at www.ajusd.org or call 480-982-1110.
Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at email@example.com