Recruiting good teachers to a small community isn't always easy.
And although Payson can boast of clean air and tall trees, other communities that are just as nice are offering starting teachers more money, Payson Education Association member Ginger Sparks said.
The average starting salary for teachers in the state is $23,342. The Payson Unified School District pays $22,500, the third lowest in Gila County behind Pine at $22,300 and Hayden-Winkleman at $20,000.
"It's a deadly combination," Sparks said. "There's a higher cost of living (in Payson) and lower salaries."
Lost bargaining power
Sparks said the PEA wants to return to the negotiating process of meet and confer -- a program that once gave teachers a say in how the school district spends its money.
To that end, the group recently sent letters to all district staff members urging them to ask Payson School Board members to recognize the PEA as the negotiation team for district employees.
Sparks, a guidance counselor who has worked for the district for 16 years, said the association has been a part of the community for longer than she can remember.
"It preceded me here," she said Wednesday.
Former Superintendent Russ Kinzer and former school board members removed the PEA from the district's budget process and replaced it with a new group -- the Superintendent's Advisory Council.
The council's 17 members are elected by teachers and staff, and some PEA representatives are on that council.
School Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said he thinks the advisory council was established to eliminate the meet and confer process.
"I hear it was quite a circus," he said. "I understand (the PEA) is recruiting members. I think teachers ought to belong to a group. As far as changing the process, I don't know."
Rubber stamp council
Louis Crabtree was president of the PEA when Kinzer and the school board cut the group out of the negotiation process. Crabtree has worked as a teacher with the district for 16 years and has been a member of the Arizona Education Association for 22 years. He described the current advisory board as "an exercise in futility.
"If you do away with negotiations and just have an advisory council, it minimizes our power," Crabtree said. "We're on the front lines -- we work with the kids. In the past five years, (the advisory council has) just been a rubber stamp."
While the PEA remains out of the budget process and has no say in how the district spends its money, Sparks and others in the group said staff compensation should be at the top of the school board's list.
"We feel all staff salaries and benefits need to be a priority for the next school year," she said.
Roger Wholly, a science teacher at Payson High School, agreed.
Wholly is a longtime PEA member and one of two PHS teacher representatives on the Superintendent's Advisory Council.
Advisory council members don't have the resources or the training to contribute to the budget process, he said. And when the advisory council met with Kinzer two years ago, the group had no real say in the decisions that were made, the teacher said.
"I felt like a lame duck," he said. "That made me feel that the whole issue with (the advisory council) is that it's really not a functioning body.
"We have health care packages. As a member of SAC, I don't feel I have enough information to make decisions for the district on health care benefits. We're given a kind of overall view of the companies that are offering packages. As I sit there and listen to questions from SAC representatives, I realize that we need the resources from the AEA to make those decisions."
Sparks said the PEA gets a lot of help from the state education association. Jeff Thomas, the Arizona Education Association liaison to the PEA, is often in Payson to meet with members. "We don't go out on strike, but we do try to improve working conditions," she said. "We do not want to take over anyone's responsibility, but we do want to know we are a part of the process.
"Class size is one of our priorities, and short-term disability programs -- it's not just salaries and benefits."
Now that the school administration has changed, Crabtree said he thinks the PEA can become a productive partner in the district's budget process again.
"I'm hopeful that this is an enlightened board," he said. "I've held my tongue for the past five years while Kinzer was in power. We just waited them out. It was a recalcitrant board and a power hungry superintendent. Now we don't have that."
Wholly said he would like to see everyone working together to boost staff salaries so the district can attract and keep talented, qualified teachers.
"Talking to Mr. Weissenfels and school board members, and PEA and SAC, I feel this is going to happen," Wholly said. "If the focus and priority is keeping qualified teachers and getting them here, we need to see that salaries increase."
Salaries take big slice out of budget
The Payson School District spends $8.2 million, or more than 70 percent, of its $11.5 million maintenance and operations budget on salaries.
"Another $1.6 million or 14 percent of the budget goes to benefits," Payson School District Business Manager Bobette Sylvester said. "That's 86 percent of the M & O budget."
The district employs 163 teachers and 175 employees.