High Cost Of Living Keeping Families At Bay

School growth slows as parents are priced out


Student population growth in Payson, which had been growing at an average of 5.5 percent, has leveled off to about 1.5 percent.

The two-year trend has town and school officials concerned and looking for answers.

Payson's most significant student growth spurt occurred during the 1991-92 school year, when the student population increased by 10.5 percent.

The town's student growth rate averaged 5.5 percent between 1992 and 1998, but dropped sharply in 1999, remaining flat this school year.

School officials think the trend indicates that fewer people with children are moving to town, and Payson Community Development Director Bob Gould thinks they might be right.

Gould said the town is still growing, but most of the people who are moving to Payson don't have children.

School Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said parents with children are finding it difficult to make a living in Payson.

"Quite a few leave our district," he said. "They try to come up here and get by and when they can't, they move."

Ultimately, a reduced student population growth rate affects school funding, Payson School District Business Manager Bobette Sylvester said.

The school district's funding is based on the number of students enrolled on the 100th day of school, she said.

"It's the basis for what we're allowed to spend on everything -- salaries, capital, supplies -- for all expenditures for the school district."

But school population growth is not an accurate measure of growth in the town, Gould said.

"We know growth is still occurring," he said.

During the past two years, the town has had about 250 housing starts a year, which is appreciably lower than Payson's peak growth year -- 1997 -- when 390 homes were built, Gould said.

But a growing population needs a dependable water supply, Gould said, and developers are hesitant to seek out their own sources of water, which the town requires them to do.

"(The developers) say the problem is finding new sources of water," he said. "They'd rather pay the fees. My personal opinion is, once the town finds a significant source of water, we'll have more growth.

"It appears we're not getting families. And that's because of housing costs and the availability of new jobs up here. They need jobs in order to survive."

Gila County wages averaged $11.52 an hour in 1998 and site-built housing costs currently average $153,310.

Town officials will gain a clearer picture of the town's growth patterns when census results are released later this year, said Gould, who is the chairman of the Gila County Complete Count Committee.

But Weissenfels said he thinks the school district reflects what is happening in the community at large.

"Growth affects us all," he said, "and I hope a little bit of growth continues. Everything from the cost of living to development fees to available jobs plays a part in the role of a family that would have children in our schools."

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