The decision to close two of the county school district's alternative schools was not due solely to the arrest of the district's former business manager for illegal use of the district's bank account, but it was a contributing factor, said the county's top school official.
Gila County Superintendent of Public Schools Dr. Linda O'Dell said she wanted to clarify what she considered to be a "serious misinterpretation" of a press release sent out by her office on March 14. The March 18 Roundup reported that former business manager Yvette Vargas' actions required closing the Globe and Payson Education Centers.
In the press release, O'Dell said that following Vargas' arrest on charges of fraudulent schemes, staff at the Payson Education Center informed her that money that was supposed to have been received by the IRS was unaccounted for.
"The money is there and always was," said O'Dell. "It has since been sent to IRS and the situation has been resolved."
She said that Vargas still faces charges of fraudulent schemes, but those charges are unrelated to the previously errant IRS money.
"I would attribute the issue with IRS to incompetence, not to theft," she said.
O'Dell said that while the situation with Vargas contributed to her decision to close the schools, it was not the deciding factor.
She said that increased needs at regular campuses within the county's school districts along with issues of time and her heavy workload prompted her decision.
"I have received communications from a lot of district supervisors (in Gila County) and they have indicated that they need me to pay more attention to things like population and budget issues," O'Dell said.
She said she was spending too much time running the alternative schools and she felt she became overworked and fatigued and the alternative schools began to take more of her time than she could justify.
Alternative school campuses typically include court-involved, special education and other at-risk students.
"What we did (establishing the schools in 2005) was needed at the time, and it has raised more awareness about the special needs of these kids," she said.
O'Dell said a "conglomeration" of factors left her with little choice but to close the schools.
She said the state's employer-sanction law that went into effect on Jan. 1 also played a role in her final decision.
"We lost a fair number of students, I believe, after Jan. 1. Our schools were hit pretty hard," she said. "This is a challenging job under any circumstances, but the added level of attention that the alternative schools were taking from my time budget added to it significantly and I just needed to put my energies in other directions."
She said that despite the schools closing, she still considers it her duty to provide at-risk students with the education they need to move forward in life.
"We are not abandoning these kids," O'Dell said.
She said the county has an obligation to do its best to provide education to alternative school students and the schools will remain open and staffed until the end of the 2007-2008 school year.
"If there is a silver lining, this will give the alternative education students a chance to buckle down before the end of the school year," she said.
She said if there is a clear need exhibited for separate alternative education facilities again in the future, she might consider reopening the schools at a later date.
She said she is working with district superintendents to reintegrate at-risk students onto existing campuses after the two schools close, but in more non-traditional settings and classrooms in order to meet their special education needs.
She said she fully expects district schools will expand some of their alternative schooling options and is "confident and hopeful" district school officials will "step up" and address the issue.
"We will likely place them in separate classrooms so that teachers can provide them with the flexibility and specialized style of education they need," said O'Dell.
"It takes a certain kind of teacher to communicate effectively with at-risk and special needs students," she added.
O'Dell said the topic of alternative education is among items she and Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O'Brien will discuss when they meet today, Friday March 28.