With decision time just two months away, the Payson Unified School District is in the process of taking a careful look at possible ways to address a projected budget shortfall with minimal impact on students.
While the final amount of the deficit, estimated to be as much as $770,000, is dependent on the 100-day student count at the end of January, PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels doesn't expect any major surprises.
"So far the budget situation is playing out about the way we thought it would," he said.
Meanwhile, the PUSD Board of Education mandated that cuts be made to affect the classroom as little as possible.
"That means hopefully not reducing the number of teachers we have," Weissenfels said, "because that would mean class size goes up, and we don't want to do that."
The superintendent said that rumors of cuts in the vocational education are unfounded.
"There has been no discussion about cutting vocational ed, except the board's determination not to cut programs that affect kids," he said. "We have very good numbers in the vocational programs. Even kids who are going to college take things like business, typing and computers."
At the board's request Weissenfels has prepared a list of possible reductions that, if enacted, would accomplish nearly half of the savings necessary to balance the 2001-02 school year budget.
"With two fairly minor exceptions, all the cuts are away from the classroom," Weissenfels said.
They include eliminating three maintenance positions, the transportation supervisor, the director of personnel, an accounting position, and a secretarial position in special services. Other proposed reductions include board and superintendent travel, and the two classroom cuts eliminating full day kindergarten and cutting a half-time preschool teacher.
If enacted, those cuts would save the district an estimated $290,000. By also eliminating the position of warehouse supervisor and one high school administrator, an additional $78,000 could be saved. But while the majority of the reductions do not directly impact the classroom, Weissenfels pointed out that all cuts have an indirect impact, especially on some of the services now provided to teachers. "The director of personnel, for example, not only takes care of hiring, but also of many situations with teachers like fingerprinting.
"Every certified person has to have a fingerprint card, and now they're going to have to go someplace to get it done," he said. "Anything on (the list of possible reductions) is going to cost the district, and it has to be carefully weighed against what we have to make up."
One possibility for eliminating a significant chunk of the rest of the deficit using funds earmarked for the maintenance and repair of facilities wouldn't cost the district a dime, according to Weissenfels. The reason such money might be available is a relatively new state program called Students First.
"It's a mechanism set up by the legislature to fund the improvement of facilities, which includes new buildings, remodels and updates," he said. "Previously we had to build up some money in the budget and do what we could every year. It was a slow process, and, frankly, you keep falling further behind."
PUSD just became eligible for the program, and is scheduled to receive over $3 million in Students First money next year. As a result, Weissenfels hopes he can pull as much as $200,000 out of the district's maintenance and repair budget and put it in the general fund.
If the projected budget shortfall is less than the worst-case scenario of $770,000, and Weissenfels is hopeful it may be, the cuts suggested to the board combined with the Students First savings could leave a minimal shortfall.
"The rest may have to come from the various sites," he said, "but then it could be just some small things that have to be reduced for a year things that would have a very small impact."
The projected shortfall is the result of two factors, declining enrollment and a new state criteria that will reduce the number of students eligible to be placed in a special education category called Emotionally Disabled-Private or EDP.
According to the district's preliminary counts, which are subject to adjustment at the final 100-day count, the district is down over 60 students from last year. Since the state pays the district approximately $3,400 per student, the reduction represents a potential loss of over $200,000. The special education budget problem arose when the Arizona Department of Education for the first time established specific criteria for the EDP classification, which is for students the state defines as "more severely impaired emotionally handicapped," guidelines which will put most of Payson's EDP students in a category that is funded at a much lower level.
In addition to the approximately $3,400 per year the state pays school districts for each enrolled student, it pays an additional "support level" for special education students. Because EDP students require special programs, small class sizes and specialized support staff like behavior techs, the state reimburses school districts at a much higher rate than for the category where most of Payson's EDP students will now be placed.
That level for students classified as EDP is currently 4.127 of the base of $3,400 or approximately $14,000 per student. Conversely, those special education students in other categories are funded at a support level that works out to just $10 extra per student.
Weissenfels said he hopes the special education deficit may not be quite as bad as anticipated.
"We know we're going to lose the one program, but some of the other special education funds may go up a bit," he said.
He also hopes that some of the money generated by the passage of Proposition 301 can be used to offset the shortfall. In a recent memo to all district employees explaining the budget problem, Weissenfels said that $175,000 of that money could be applied to the general fund budget, and possibly more.
Funds received through the Credit for Kids program, on the other hand, must be used for extracurricular activities. That program, which allows households to contribute up to $200 to schools and receive an equal state tax credit, generated $145,000 for extracurricular activities last year.
"We should have a total soon on Credit for Kids," Weissenfels said, "but as of the end of November we were running way behind." He said there has been no talk of cutting extracurricular programs, and that Credit for Kids money can be used "to maintain some of that."
The deadline for final budget decisions is probably March, according to Weissenfels. "That's when teacher contracts go out, and we have to know by then."
In the meantime he expects the board to hold a series of workshops at which all the recommendations and options will be carefully considered. "We also have two new board members who need to be updated," he said.
When the shortfall is determined and the cuts are made, Weissenfels believes the quality of education PUSD students receive will not suffer greatly. "My best guess and my hope is that no program will be lost.
"We're probably one of the stronger districts in the state educationally our students are consistently in the 60th percentile on all measures and the board is committed to not interrupting what we've got going," Weissenfels said.