Rim Country Learning

Teacher raises, new schedule mark year of changes for Payson schools

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Considering the belt tightening going on around the state, Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels is pleased with the progress of his district over the past 12 months.

"It was a pretty good year," Weissenfels said. "Our teachers got very large raises, partly due to Proposition 301, and partly due to a commitment by the board to raise salaries. We had to divert some money from other places in the budget, but the board did a great job of honoring their commitment to the teachers. Yes, we've missed a couple of the positions we had to cut, but other people have done a beautiful job of picking up the slack."

Weissenfels says the district is now working hard on improving the salary schedule for classified employees.

"They represent half of our work force and are extremely important to the district," he said.

Meanwhile, the new modified calendar under which the district is operating this year for the first time is receiving rave reviews. While discipline problems are down, Weissenfels is reluctant to link the two just yet.

The superintendent also cautions that the calendar will be further modified over the next several years.

"Each year for the next three years, we have to add one more school day to the calendar," he said. "That's state-mandated because Arizona has one of the shortest school years in the country."

When the phase-in of days is completed, PUSD will have 180 days of school each year close to the national norm. Students in the district currently attend classes 177 days per year.

Another positive, Weissenfels said, is that test scores keep climbing.

"Our test scores on the ACT and SAT are up slightly, keeping us above average," he said. "Scores on the Stanford 9 are above average, too."

The AIMS test remains under a cloud, he said.

"We are still giving it, as per state rules, but what will happen to it ultimately depends on the election in November," he said. "The candidates for state superintendent (of education) are all over the place on the issue."

Another positive is that the student count is once again on the plus side after actually declining in the previous year. While Weissenfels is happy to see the trend reversed, he believes it is only temporary.

"We grew a little by about 27 students," he said. "We still have a bubble coming through, and once that works through, I think it will be coming down again."

One of the definite points of progress this year, Weissenfels said, is PUSD's acceptance into a new vocational-technical education school district.

"Back in the 1990s, the Legislature passed a bill that allowed two or more districts to join together to form another school district for the purpose of vocational-technical education," he said. "Not every student is going to college, so the state felt a need to beef up vocational-technical training."

A number of such districts have been formed, and after a careful study, PUSD decided to apply to a northern Arizona coalition that includes nine other school districts.

"We looked at several that were all about the same distance from Payson, and went with this one, which operates out of Show Low, for several reasons," he said. "They have been highly successful, and we have athletic and other ties with many of the schools in the district."

The key to the program, Weissenfels said, is that it can be specifically geared to the actual needs of each community.

"We have some needs in this community for skilled trades electricians, plumbers, computer technicians, certified nursing assistants and this program will give some of our young people the opportunity to stay here. We can pick our own programs, and pick our own people to run them. They provide a lot of backup and expertise. We would operate as a satellite in partnership with Eastern Arizona College - Payson. (Assistant Dean) Barbara (Ganz) has been wonderful.

"EAC has no vocational programs, but has the community involvement. We can provide a base of 300 or so high school students to combine with college students so we can develop programs that benefit the community."

Voters have to approve PUSD's participation in the district, an issue that is likely to appear on the November ballot. While there is a very minor tax increase linked to approval, Weissenfels said it's a deal too good to turn down.

"It would cost $5 per year on a home appraised at $100,000. By law that amount cannot be raised," he said.

That money is more than matched by the state.

"It allows students in the program to be counted as one-and-a-quarter students instead of one, so it would greatly increase our available funding," he said. "That would help us fund things like an electronics lab or an auto mechanics facility that is up to date."

Weissenfels and Ganz are also working on a long-term project implementing the K-16 concept in the Rim country.

"The K-16 concept intertwines all levels of education throughout the first 16 years," Weissenfels said. High school students can actually get some college credits for course equivalents.

"By taking the right courses, they can actually have the first year of college just about done when they graduate from PHS," he said.

"With the involvement of Northern Arizona University as well as EAC, students can go all the way through their bachelors degree and beyond and stay right here at home. We have all the units. We just need to get them together to make it work."

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