New Board Should Shore Up Leaky Budget

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The newly elected Pine-Strawberry Elementary School Board could build a legacy as the group that did all the right things for children.

But, it will take commitment and vision for the five board members to meet those challenges.

The board's No. 1 goal when its members are sworn in Jan. 4 should be to use the opening work-study and organizational time to lay the groundwork for a budget override election that could be held in early summer.

Without a successful override election, the school district doesn't have much chance of funding the programs that play such a huge role in the development and education of children.

Without an override, the school runs the risk of losing some of its finest teachers and staff. The faculty, administration, food service workers, janitors and bus drivers are woefully underpaid and have not had a raise since the 2001-2002 school year.

Simply put, salaries in Pine are so ridiculously low that principal Kathe Ketchem cannot expect to retain experienced teachers or attract promising new ones. A beginning teacher's salary in Pine is $6,000 lower than Payson and more than $10,000 less than some other districts in the state.

The school's budget problems have been caused by a combination of declining enrollment and increases in expenditures.

Since 1997, the school's student population has decreased by 113 pupils and could fall even lower next school year.

With declining enrollment, the school has received less state funding. That means the school has had to cut programs and staff to meet its budget.

At the same time, the Pine school also has experienced a tremendous increase in expenses, including a 42 percent jump in employee insurance, a 129 percent spike in Arizona State retirement premiums, and rising fuel costs.

Without the Credit for Kids tax revenues, Pine could not sponsor extracurricular activities or field trips.

The solution to the school's financial problems hinges on a successful budget override. But an override in the tiny mountain hamlet would be a tough sell because many who live there are wealthy weekenders and summer residents who will most likely oppose any type of tax increase regardless of its benefits.

Still, the attempt must be made.

Pine should take a page out of the strategy plan the Payson Unified School District relied on when it passed an override last spring.

The best hope for the Pine school is that board members Suzanne Fumusa, Katie McNeeley, Mike Roggenstein, Jessica Barnett and Margaret Parker have the courage to step up and make the best decisions for the future of children.

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