Former Payson mayor Craig Swartwood says the community has no choice but to pass the Payson Unified School District's budget override on May 18.
"I think it's the most important issue facing our town, and it will be for the next five or 10 years," Swartwood said. "I think it's so important that the community steps up and passes it, because if they don't, I'm afraid of the consequences over the next three to five years."
Swartwood is head of Payson Kids Count, a local organization formed to work for passage of the override. He understands the community has a lot of other needs.
"In reality, nobody likes a tax increase," he said. "But personally I'd rather drive on roads with potholes and have the kids up here get a great education."
The PUSD board has prepared two budgets, one with the override money included and one without. Cuts, if the override fails, will include the middle school nurse, several librarians, and a total of 18 staff positions, including 16 teachers.
Swartwood's wife, who is the nurse at RCMS, will not be affected by the override.
"Her job is not in jeopardy," he said. "She'd get moved up to the high school because she's been here longer than the other one."
Swartwood says the override is a bargain for the community.
"By and large, I think most people, if they realize the implications of a no vote, would probably pay $48 a year to keep kids participating in sports and in classes that are manageable," Swartwood said.
It's a decision most school districts have already made.
"Eighty-six percent of the children in Arizona attend a school district that has an override in place," Swartwood said. "So we're flat in the minority."
Because he is generally opposed to tax increases, and because of his expertise in government finances, he took a close look at the PUSD budget before making up his mind.
"You look at where the funding sources come from and where they're legally permitted to spend money and you can see their soft capital going down and down and down because they were trying to augment and prop up salaries," he said. "The school board made a valiant effort over the last five years to keep us from hemorrhaging by using the soft capital money, but how do you pay for capital repairs on your schools if you're spending it all on salaries?
"I think this year they started crunching the numbers and realized the whole situation had reached such critical mass that if they didn't do something, they were going to be forced to lay off teachers and cut back on programs and have parents fund programs that in the past have been mostly funded by the education system."
Swartwood also bases his support on the education his own children received in Payson.
"My two kids went all the way through the system from kindergarten," he said. "My daughter graduates from Arizona State University on May 13 with honors, and my son's a freshman at Scottsdale Community College. I believe in education."
But it was the continuing loss of good teachers -- as well as the difficulty in attracting new ones -- that finally convinced him to get involved.
"Several years ago when they had an opening for teachers, 10 people applied," he said. "All of a sudden they were only getting two applicants or they'd wait until August to hire a math teacher, and you could see the trend continuing.
"People used to tell me when I was younger that living in Payson you get a lot of psychic income, and, boy, I can buy into that to an extent. But I've not tried to pay a utility bill or health insurance with psychic income, and I don't think they'd take that check."
Swartwood believes good teachers are the foundation of an education system, and that education, in turn, is the foundation of a community.
"Without quality education, you don't have much of a community," he said. "I think it's the center of the synergy that a community generates. Without it, you don't have quality health care, you don't have the professionals, and people who value education won't move to your town."
Former town council candidate Vernon Randall is among those who opposes the override. He has two children currently attending PUSD schools.
"If all the money went to the kids, more power to them," Randall said. "But you know, they have some administrators that need to be replaced and some things that need to be fixed before they just dump more money in there."
In addressing the issue of administrative problems, Swartwood uses an analogy.
"If you came upon somebody who was wounded out in the road and he was shot once in the chest and once in the foot, which are you going to fix first," he said. "Everybody says, ‘I'm going to fix the chest wound.'
"I say, ‘That's right, you're going to stop the hemorrhage and save the guy's life and then you're going to work on that foot wound.' To me, because of our budget and because of where we are in pay, we're hemorrhaging -- and we need to fix that."
Payson Kids Count has raised several thousand dollars in private donations -- enough to wage an aggressive campaign during the 30 days leading up to the election.
"We'll begin April 17 with a group of concerned parents and citizens walking door-to-door handing out brochures," Swartwood said.
"Then it's going to be signs in yards, radio ads, newspaper ads. It's a very grassroots organization."
He believes the community will approve the override.
"This is a great place, and the last two times the schools have gone for a bond election, it's passed," he said. "I just feel in my mind that the people up here aren't going to let these kids down -- or the teachers. If you can't believe in the education of youth, then what can you get behind. The rest of it doesn't really matter."