Pine Cash Crunch Could Cut Music

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The Pine-Strawberry School District is $138,000 short on its budget, and on Monday, teachers and staff will join with school board members to figure out ways to cover the deficit.

"We want to get their ideas on this problem and take a look at all the possible options," board member Jessica Barnett said. "We do not know the answers are, but whatever we do, we won't satisfy everyone."

Originally, only a core of teachers were selected to participate in the meeting After rethinking that decision, Kathe Ketchem, principal of the Pine-Strawberry School, along with the board, decided to invite all certified and non-certified employees to attend.

Ketchem has submitted her recommendations, which will be discussed at the meeting, on covering the budget shortfall.

Ketchem's suggestions included combining a kindergarten and first-grade class into a single "kinderfirst" class. Also, she suggested combining second- and third-grade classes. Both classes, she said, would be a manageable size of 20-plus students.

Combining two grade levels is a common practice in smaller school districts like Young, Tonto Basin and others around the state.

Although rumors have been rampant in Pine and Payson that the music and band program would be cut from the budget, Barnett said that's not the case.

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Pine-Strawberry School keyboard students Nerissa Kueny, Talia Schaal and Katie Aganowski practice with the band Thursday. Currently, 85 percent of all students in the Pine district are enrolled in music programs.

"There have been no decisions made, we are discussing only," said Barnett.

Barnett, whose daughter, Heather, passed through the Pine Elementary School music program, said cutting music or band would be a last resort only.

Former Pine principal Sue Myers, now the principal at Payson High School, empathizes with the administration and board members who must eventually render the tough budget decisions.

"They have to find ways to do it that will impact the children the least," she said.

Myers was principal of the school in 1978 when the music program was implemented. She is among those who hopes it can remain intact.

"Music was the first thing we added (to the curriculum)," she said. "Before that we all taught everything, physical education and music. It would be unfortunate to go back to that."

If the board decides a Reduction In Force (RIF) is a budget solution, Ketchem must consider several factors in deciding who would be laid off.

"We would look at seniority, skills and certification," she said.

The origins of the budget crunch lie in a declining Pine Elementary School enrollment and increased retirement and employee health insurance costs.

The school's average daily membership has declined, which means a loss of state revenue, to 133 from last year's count of 154.

Also, the Arizona State Retirement system increased the fees it charges teachers and school districts for the second consecutive year. Pine school's health care provider also upped its fees.

Whatever solutions the board and teachers decide on, they could be short term only.

Last year, Payson Unified School District had to go to the voters to ask for financial help in the form of an budget override. It overwhelmingly passed.

Another solution for Pine might be to consolidate with PUSD.

That option has been mulled over the last couple of years, but no formal talks have taken place.

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