Payson Schools Face Budget Shortfall

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The biggest problem facing the Payson school district for the coming school year is getting enough state funding for English Language Learners (ELL) - with a potential shortfall of $350,000, District Superintendent Casey O'Brien told the school board at its Monday, Feb. 11 meeting.

"We won't really have a good idea of our budget until the legislature gets done with their number crunching and comes up with a dollar figure for funding the next school year," he said.

However, Payson might well have to come up with extra money beyond what the state provides if the legislature fails to increase the district's budget to meet new requirements for students who have trouble understanding English, according to estimates from the Arizona School Administrators.

House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Anderson said the state would have trouble boosting next year's ELL budget above this year's $54 million, despite a task force estimate that the state needed to spend at least $350 million to comply with court orders. If the state doesn't increase its ELL budget, Payson will have to find the money within its overall budget to pay for the required ELL program increases.

The other main topic of discussion was a report by the district's special education director on programs for special education children in Payson schools.

The state requires a range of services for students with learning disabilities and handicaps, but state payments fully cover the cost of programs only for students with autism, according to Special Education Director Barbara Fitzgerald.

"Autism is growing in the district, but the good news is that they are bringing enough money to the district to support themselves," said Fitzgerald.

She said that special education kids with Autism comprise the largest segment of the special education population in the district.

"Right now children with special needs comprise about 15 percent, or 350 of the 2,800 total student population in the district," said Fitzgerald.

She said that on average special education kids with autism bring in a little over a million dollars per year to the district.

Because of the rural nature of Payson's schools and relative lack of private or charter schools, Payson School District can expect to see an increase in its population of autistic children in coming years, said Fitzgerald.

However, as long as the state doesn't cut funding, it shouldn't present a problem for the district, she added.

In contrast, she said that the district sometimes has to dip into the general budget to meet the needs of other special education children, like children with vision or speech impairments.

The board also recognized Payson High School Coach Aaron Gray as he prepares to leave Payson for deployment to Afghanistan.

Gray is a member of the Arizona National Guard and his unit will soon be sent to Afghanistan to train Afghan forces as part of an Embedded Training Team. He must report to Fort Riley, Kansas on Feb. 17 for two months of training.

Gray's wife, Kelsey, gave birth to his son, Jamison only 7 days ago here in Rim Country, and while he said he will miss his wife and newborn son more than anything else, he will also miss Payson.

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