Chorus May Be Budget Casualty

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Yet more programs are on the school district chopping block, including a highly popular and successful chorus program at Rim Country Middle School.

Because RCMS and Payson High School are each losing 3.5 staff positions next year, their principals are looking at possible options to absorb the loss.

RCMS Principal Frank Larby admitted that he is thinking about making chorus an after-school activity.

"My teachers wanted to know where I saw them teaching next year," Larby said. "I told them, ‘Look, guys, it's really preliminary.' I have some thoughts down, but it's nothing set in stone."

Art may be yet another casualty at RCMS next year.

"Right now the art program would not be offered as a during-the-day exploratory (elective)," Larby said. "Mr. (Michael) Stern's position has been RIFed (for Reduction in Force) and right now that's one I'm looking at not offering."

Larby said he is considering adding Spanish next year, something the school doesn't currently offer.

"I like the idea of Spanish if you're going to live in this part of the country," he said. "So one of the things I was looking at was instead of having chorus during the school day, having chorus as an after-school offering and have a Spanish exploratory."

RCMS band teacher Michael Buskirk said 134 students take chorus and 84 take band. Combined, about one-third of the RCMS student body is involved in the music program.

He believes cutting chorus as an exploratory is a mistake.

"I'm going to quote Ileane Gonzales (former school district band teacher)," Buskirk said.

"Both Ileane and I have seen music programs change a community. It's not just the school."

"The community takes pride when they see the band marching down the street. They enjoy the benefits of the music program in their church choirs every Sunday. ... They attend the winter concert at Christmas-time.

"Every culture since the beginning of time -- and I've done my history on this one -- every single culture has had music."

Larby sympathizes.

"Chorus will exist in some form," he said. "I love watching the kids perform.

"We're trying to put together the best possible program for the kids and it's hard. There just aren't enough funds to pay the bill."

RCMS chorus teacher Karen Goss will probably teach English next year. She was unavailable for comment during spring break.

So was PHS Principal Phil Gille, but Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said that some decisions have been made to accommodate the reduction of 3.5 teaching positions at the high school.

"The high school has department heads and we have paid them, but they won't get paid next year," Weissenfels said. "One staff position that will be cut is one of two FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) teachers. You and I know it as home economics."

The superintendent emphasized that all cuts will be based on what's best for the students.

"The things that have the greatest student enrollment and interest will stay, but we don't know yet how that will work out," Weissenfels said.

A projected budget shortfall of $400,000 is responsible for a reduction of eight teachers. Weissenfels said several factors are contributing to the problem.

"State retirement is more than doubling. This year teachers and the district contributed 2.49 percent of salaries to the retirement fund; next year that's jumping to 5.7 percent."

The increase will cost the district $254,000. By law, contributions to the retirement fund are paid half by teachers and half by the district.

The other major contributor to the deficit is a 20-percent increase in health insurance premiums.

"To keep the same plan this year would have meant an increase of 38 percent," Weissenfels said. "No way could we afford that, so we moved to a plan with higher deductibles, and that increase will come out about 20 percent."

A third factor negatively impacting the budget is a drop in enrollment of nine students this year. The state pays the district approximately $3,400 per student.

The district already announced that physical education programs at its three elementary schools will be discontinued next year. But Weissenfels hopes some, if not all of the eight teachers can be retained.

"Part of the reason those answers are not there yet is that we know we have a few teachers who are looking at retiring or leaving," he said. "Should those people leave, some of those that got RIFed will be coming back.

"Teachers are awarded contracts about April 15, and they have 30 days to get those back to us. Then we always have one or two changes over the summer."

As difficult as the reductions are, Weissenfels emphasized that it could be worse.

"At least it's easier than Mesa or Scottsdale," he said. "They're cutting teachers by the hundreds."

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