Casteel aims to stop enrollment slide before retiring - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Casteel aims to stop enrollment slide before retiring

December 21st, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Casteel aims to stop enrollment slide before retiring

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chandler Unified Superintendent Camille Casteel is aiming to resolve the district’s budget woes before she retires at the end of this school year.

After 25 years as the top administrator of the state’s second-largest school district, Casteel announced two weeks ago plans to step down next June.

In an interview with the SanTan Sun News, Casteel discussed her struggles with trying to manage CUSD during the pandemic and her top objective over the next six months.            

“We’d like to regain our student enrollment,” she said.

The 2020-21 school year was the first during Casteel’s tenure that saw an enrollment decline after steady annual growth since 1996 — the year Casteel was appointed superintendent.

That growth resulted in the construction of 30 school campuses.

But the pandemic has stunted that trajectory, costing the district more than 1,750 students and a loss of $13.9 million in state per-pupil reimbursement.

That loss in state reimbursement could cost Chandler another $11.7 million because of the number of students who were in distance-learning earlier in the 2020-21 school year.

The state reimburses districts at a rate that’s 5 percent lower for online students than they get for those who learn in classrooms.

Virtually all school districts have lost enrollment. Officials in other districts have said that statewide, some 40,000 students have literally disappeared from their enrollment lists and no one knows how – or if – they are learning since charter school numbers do not reflect that kind of increase in their student population.

CUSD also had $13 million in unexpected expenses in the 2019-20 school year for pandemic-related costs that ranged from equipment for distance learning to protective gear to cleaning and sanitizing supplies.

Casteel said her staff will be ramping up marketing efforts in the coming months to try and win students back to the district.

She said she also has been in regular contact with state legislators in the hope that the reimbursement formula can be readjusted for districts.

Casteel’s retirement announcement came during t=one of the district’s most turbulent times.

For the last nine months, the superintendent has been regularly bombarded with angry emails from parents upset over how CUSD has responded to the pandemic.

One side has insisted CUSD keep its schools open during the health crisis and another has pushed for more virtual learning options.

The lack of consensus among Chandler’s families has often placed Casteel in the position of trying to play peacekeeper with two groups unwilling to make a compromise.

It’s been a “horrible” place to be in at times, Casteel said, because the district is frequently shoved into a corner and can’t make any decision that won’t upset lots of people.

“You feel like you’re surrounded by a number of firing squads and no matter which way you turn, you’re going to be taken out,” the superintendent said.

She said CUSD could have handled some challenges better, explaining, “I wish we knew in March what we know now. We might have changed the way we were operating.”

Her decision to resign was an incredibly difficult one to make, she said, yet 50 years in public education seemed like a nice number to end on.

“I just felt it was time,” Casteel added. “I would like to have some more time with my family.”

Living through a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 7,400 Arizonans also made her feel the need to spend more time with her 95-year-old mother and many grandchildren, Casteel said.

“The pandemic has affected all of us,” she added. “It certainly has made me rethink the time I would like with my family.”

Looking back on her long career, Casteel said she can’t believe she went from teaching first grade to sitting in the superintendent’s seat.

She said she never saw herself as an administrator when she was first hired at CUSD in 1971 and credits her success to the many mentors who pushed her to be a leader.

“I had a number of people who saw qualities in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself,” she said.

Public education has evolved over the last five decades and educators have had to adapt to some significant changes, she said.

From statewide teacher strikes to competing with charter schools, Casteel explained, superintendents across Arizona have had to navigate complex problems to keep their districts operational.

Casteel said she’s worried about the future of public education and hopes Arizona will always prioritize student well-being over everything else.

“I believe public education has become politicized and that certainly wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” Casteel added.

If Casteel was to pass along some advice to her successor, she’d tell them to maintain a calm demeanor, remain accessible to the community and try to stay open-minded.

“There’s always multiple sides to an issue and to listen to all sides,” she added.

Brighter days are ahead for CUSD, Casteel emphasized, and she’s eager to be back in a time when she and her staff didn’t have to worry endlessly about COVID-19 data and health guidelines.

“I’m looking forward to the day when the pit in my stomach goes away and I can sleep through the night,” she said.