Community Helps Schools Survive

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The foundation of every community is the education of its youth, the Greek biographer Diogenes said.

The Rim country's public school systems strive to fulfill that mission despite a lack of state funding. This year, the Payson Unified School District will finally ask the community to help cover the funding deficit.

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Math teacher Kalli Kinnick goes over a lesson with student Katie Leafty. Kinnick teaches Introduction to Algebra, Algebra I and Applied Mathematics at Payson High School.

The school board voted unanimously in January to hold a special maintenance and operations override election on May 18 in conjunction with the regular general election. The board is asking voters to approve a 10-percent override for seven years, which would raise an estimated $1,242,032.

"That's the biggest issue in terms of impact on the horizon for the district," Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "If it doesn't pass, we will be reducing our staff by a total of 18 positions, including reductions in library services and health services.

"If we are able to pass the override, most of those positions will be restored. It will also provide our board with a greater opportunity to bring our average teacher salary up closer to the state average."

Tough decision

The decision to ask the voters to approve an override was not an easy one for the school board.

"They've tried cutting and starving for years, and they can't do it anymore," Weissenfels said. "It came down to the board's commitment to our personnel and to maintaining a high quality of education."

Weissenfels said the problem that necessitated the decision is inadequate funding from the state coupled with a continuing decline in enrollment.

"The student population the last couple of years has gone down," he said. "and it's projected to go down a little bit again next year. Because of that, we lose revenue."

The state pays the district about $4,000 for each student, which ranks it 48th out of 50 states in funding education. This year PUSD has about 2,750 students.

The average taxpayer who lives in a house valued at $116,000 would see an annual tax increase of $63 if the override passes. The additional tax on a house valued at $58,000 would be $31, while a $232,000 house would be assessed an additional $126.

Because businesses are assessed at 25 percent of full cash value, a business valued at $270,000 would see a tax increase of $368.

Strong community support

Community support for education has always been strong in the Rim country, and the past year was no exception. Credit for Kids donations were up 8.5 percent for the 2003 tax year to a total of $190,142.72 -- the second highest since the program was initiated by the state legislature in 1997.

Credit for Kids directs a portion of your tax money to the school district of your choice rather than to the Arizona Department of Revenue. The money funds a host of programs and activities throughout the district that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

"When you see all the extra programs the students still get that we've had to cut because of budget constraints, it is really wonderful," Payson High School Principal Sue Myers said.

The entire elementary school strings program, for example, is funded by Credit for Kids money. The elementary schools also use Credit for Kids money to offer after-school fine arts programs that include classes in subjects like photography, drawing, computers and drama.

Students at Rim Country Middle School benefit from before- and after-school tutoring, and Credit for Kids money also supports the Outdoor Adventure Club and the music program.

For Payson Center for Success students, Credit for Kids donations help fund field trips to places like the Mayo Clinic, Kartchner Caverns and the Biosphere.

A variety of Payson High School groups received a share of Credit for Kids money -- including the band, theater department, chorus, Future Business Leaders, and Students Against Destructive Decisions.

The football stadium fund is being used to accomplish much-needed renovations that the whole community will enjoy. A major priority is to install new bleachers on the home side of the field.

The stadium fund received the most money in 2003. The $57,567 donated for improvements to the stadium was a 42.5-percent increase over 2002.

Schools beautification

A new community support program initiated in 2003 is the Payson School Beautification Committee. The group was launched by Scott Flake, director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, and Cari Day, co-owner of Macky's Grill and a member of

the site committees at FES and Rim Country Middle School, in response to the reality that money simply isn't available for that purpose.

"We want our kids to be proud of our schools," Day said. "Let's make them a better place for our kids and for our teachers, make them want to come to work."

The committee interviewed all the PUSD principals, asking them to prioritize their individual school's needs, and to rank the schools in order of overall need.

"Our goal is not to do a cleanup," Day said. "It is going to be a maintainable beautification. Our goal is something like what they've done at the college with xeriscaping -- something that is very maintainable."

Given the sheer scope of their mission, the committee is looking for outside help -- especially from businesses willing to donate the supplies and materials that are needed most.

"We're going to go to the big people and get concrete donations and plant donations, and we want to put it out there to anyone that has some wonderful things to donate," Day said.

"We'll probably be going to some of the service clubs and things to try to get each one to take on a certain area," Flake added.

Now that it's begun, the committee realizes that the scope of the undertaking is enormous. But Flake believes Payson is at a stage as a community where the condition of its schools needs to be addressed.

"We're kind of in our adolescence," he said. "We're at that awkward age trying to decide what we want to be when we grow up."

Test scores rising

On the academic front, rising test scores indicate the school district continues to perform at a high level.

"Over the past several years test scores are trending upward," Weissenfels said. "That includes everything from the Stanford scores, the AIMS scores and the SAT scores at the high school."

Now in his fifth year as PUSD superintendent, Weissenfels provided this overview of the district's progress under his administration:

"We still have a good solid school system. We're struggling like everybody else with financial issues that we basically don't have control of, but we're trying to get a little control with the budget override.

"We have an excellent staff all the way around -- on every level. That, along with the team effort of the parents, is why we're getting good results.

"But we're going to have to look even harder and produce even better results."

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