Budget Override A Tough Choice For School Board

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The decision to ask Rim country residents to approve a budget override was not an easy one for the Payson Unified School District board.

"They met on this eight or 10 times, and they sweated a lot of blood over it," PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "They've tried cutting and starving for years, and they can't do it anymore. It came down to the board's commitment to our personnel and to maintaining a high quality of education."

The board voted unanimously at their regular meeting Monday evening to hold a special maintenance and operations override election 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.

Enrollment decline

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 2,850 students.

Dueling budgets

The 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.

The teacher cuts would primarily be covered by raising class sizes throughout the district, a move that Weissenfels said would amount to a major step backward.

"Our class sizes are extremely good compared to the rest of the state," he said. "It's a desirable thing we've had for a long time. The board felt we could increase our class sizes by three or four students per class and that would allow us to reduce the number of teachers."

Losing teachers

If the override passes, teachers will get a larger salary increase than if it doesn't, a critical step in keeping teachers in the district.

"Our board realizes that we're losing long-term teachers who are driving to the Valley," Weissenfels said. "They are very concerned about the fact that we have a high cost of living in Payson and we pay extremely low. Our base salary for a teacher is $27,000. In the Valley, it's $32,000 to $36,000."

The situation is exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of teachers.

"If there's eight positions open and there's only seven qualified teachers available, we're not going to get a teacher if the other seven districts pay a lot more," Weissenfels said.

One major reason other districts can pay their teachers more is because they have already passed overrides, Weissenfels said.

"In Maricopa County, the last numbers I saw indicated that 52 out of 74 districts have passed overrides," he said. "Statewide, probably over 50 percent have overrides. That's a big reason why most of them pay more than we do."

Where's the money?

Passage of the override also would result in maintaining optimal class sizes; retaining the middle school nurse, school librarians, and other personnel; reinstating the elementary school physical education programs that were eliminated last year; retaining the current level of extracurricular activities; and opening an alternative school for at-risk students in grades 6 through 12.

An alternative school would address another problem area: 11 percent of all PUSD students don't graduate.

"Our graduation rate is one of the higher in the state, which is nice, but where did that 11 percent go?" Weissenfels said. "That's a couple hundred kids, and that's too many. We need to keep every kid we've got."

The alternative school would be staffed by three teachers and a counselor and would probably be housed at Rim Country Middle School.

Converting RCMS to junior high

Regardless of whether the override passes, the district plans to convert RCMS from a middle school to a junior high school, which means abandoning the team concept that middle schools are based on. While the move will save money by reducing staff, Weissenfels also claims that new research questions the value of the middle school concept.

"A lot of research recently has questioned whether that concept is still helpful, because kids are growing up faster," he said. "The board felt if we shifted to the junior high concept again, we could reduce the number of teachers and a counselor. It was a difficult decision, but (the students) still get all the subjects. They still get the same quality teaching. There's no reason why they can't be just as successful."

State constraints

Weissenfels pointed out that how school districts spend money is controlled by directives from the state.

"A lot of people say cut transportation -- don't pick so many kids up," he said. "But we get paid according to the miles and the number of students we transport, so if we cut transportation, we're going to have less income -- we're not going to gain anything.

Cost to taxpayers

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.

Assisting the effort

Former Payson Mayor Craig Swartwood, now a Realtor, pledged his support to the board at Monday's meeting.

"I'd like to offer to help pass this bond issue," Swartwood said, "to form a group of concerned citizens and parents that will help to achieve this reality. We're not too late, but the clock is ticking, and the kids of Payson and our school district deserve better than what the future may bring."

(Watch for additional background stories on the budget override, plus an in-depth analysis of the middle school versus junior high school controversy.)

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