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FLORENCE — Several years ago, Florence Unified School District was growing quickly and building new schools.

Today, all that has slowed down enough that the district has hired a “director of growth.”

Average daily attendance was 9,232 two years ago but had declined to 8,362 last year as students failed to complete work during the pandemic. FUSD has budgeted for only a slight increase in average attendance of 8,380 this year, the school board was told on July 13.

“Last year we had a demographic study done and we were supposed to grow by 500 kids,” Superintendent Chris Knutsen said. Instead, the district stayed about even, growing by perhaps 40. The biggest drop was in the early grades, with kindergartners and preschoolers staying home in the pandemic.

In the new year, the K-3 reading program budget is down almost 20% because of lost attendance. As those students return, ESSER federal relief funds will help to bridge the gap, Chief Financial Officer Denice Erickson told the board.

Knutsen said he assumes kindergarten attendance will be double what it normally is in the new school year, beginning July 21. The district will focus on getting its older students back as well, he said.

“Across the state of Arizona, there was a significant number of kids that didn’t go to school last year. So we’re going to focus on finding them and getting them back in school.”

Chris Barnes, the district’s new director of growth, introduced himself to the school board at its July 13 meeting. “It’s really an honor to be here in Florence,” Barnes said. He said he was born and raised in Arizona and this is his 43rd year in education. “I’m really happy to be here. I look forward to a district that’s kids-first-oriented. There are many ways we’re going to approach to get our kids back.

“I’m deeply honored to be here and excited to work with this team at FUSD, and I really want to thank you for the opportunity,” Barnes said.

“His job is to grow K-3 and find the kids that we lost in K-12,” Knutsen said after the meeting. “We’re using ESSER (federal relief funds) to attack this problem. (Barnes) has a wide range of experiences in K-12 education, from a K-3 perspective all the way up to going after drop-out kids. …

“We’re going to give him the names of the kids that we’ve lost and he’s going to go find them and say, ‘Hey, we need you back in school.’”

In other business on July 13:

  • The board approved an emergency procurement for temporary transportation services and an invitation for bids for student transportation. Knutsen said after the meeting that there’s a shortage of bus drivers across the state.

“Finding people that want to come back to work after the pandemic, everyone is struggling,” Knutsen said. “We’re struggling to find custodians and bus drivers,” with 10 custodial positions and 15 driver positions unfilled.

“Everyone’s dealing with it. If I had a CDL license, I’d probably be driving in the morning and afternoon,” Knutsen said.

  • Knutsen reported schools suffered damage to air conditioners and roofs and lost perhaps 30 trees in recent monsoon storms. Perhaps the worst was at Poston Butte High School, where the air conditioning software was damaged. “We manually got one chiller up today (July 13) and we’re working on getting the other one up,” Knutsen said. “I’m hoping that when school starts both of those chillers will be up and running.

“There were a number of roofs, there were a number of air conditioners that were damaged.” The school’s insurer has sent a project manager to assess the damage across FUSD.

Knutsen said Pinal County’s Magma Road extension, which provides a more direct link between San Tan Foothills High School and Hunt Highway, is expected to be done in October.


Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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