Deep Budget Cuts Impact Rim Country Schools

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The Rim country's schools reflect the community they serve -- the values, struggles, hopes and aspirations of the people who live here.

But this year, that image is obscured by the threat of deep budget cuts as the state legislature struggles to overcome a huge deficit. While the extent of the cuts is uncertain at this time, Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels is planning to reduce staff.

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The offerings at Payson High School are as diverse as this group of students who stopped to pose en route to lunch at local fast food joints.

"The impact of the state's budget deficit is going to be very, very key," he said. "We anticipate staff cutting this next year. We already know that the state retirement assessment is going to more than double. Health insurance always increases. And then, of course, we are concerned with the additional decreases that may come through legislative action."

Adding to PUSD's woes is a declining student count. The district is down eight students to 2,865. It's a trend that Weissenfels expects to continue.

"I don't see any turnaround in the next couple of years," he said. "A lot of that is community makeup. It's too expensive for people that are raising families unless they've got a professional-type job."

Kathe Ketchem, principal-superintendent for the Pine-Strawberry School District is also concerned.

"One of the biggest issues the staff and I are addressing at this point is scheduling and staff cuts for next year," Ketchem said. "We know right now that we are probably going to lose at least $150,000 out of our maintenance and operation budget. That's about 8 percent."

Pine-Strawberry suffered an even larger decline in student enrollment than PUSD, dropping from 200 students last year to 175 this year.

"We track why parents leave the area, and one of the major reasons is economics and job opportunities," Ketchem said. "We had families that moved to the Valley for better job opportunities. Housing is expensive. Water is an issue. It's all of those kinds of things."

The declines in student enrollment are not unique to the Payson area.

"Superintendents in other rural areas are seeing the same trend," Ketchem said.

On a positive note, Ketchem emphasized a continuing improvement in test scores and the district's innovative staff development and student achievement programs.

PUSD test scores on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test were also impressive - well above the county, state and national averages in reading, math and language.

Weissenfels is particularly excited about the new joint technological education district (JTED) approved by 70 percent of the voters last fall.

PUSD has joined the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT), whose other members include the Heber, Show Low, Springerville, Winslow, Holbrook, St. Johns and Joseph City school districts.

NAVIT's function is to assist those school districts in upgrading and enhancing their vocational programs, while also providing additional career and technical programs at local community college campuses.

NAVIT and PUSD officials are now meeting with officials from Gila Community College to establish central programs. The goal is to begin offering classes this fall.

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