State Shortfall, Override Loss Puts Pressure On School

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The failure of Payson Unified School District’s $1.4 million budget override has left school officials and related parties to wonder just what went wrong.

“It’s hard to really say,” said Joanne Conlin, one of the three-member Payson Kids Count Committee that worked to pass the override.

Conlin speculated that tough economic times, combined with rising property taxes and unclear wording on the ballot contributed to the proposition’s downfall.

“We tried to let people know this was not a tax increase,” Conlin said. “We felt that it wasn’t going to be easy to get it passed as soon as we saw the language on the ballot. We were like, oh my gosh, this language is awful.”

Voters were asked on election day to renew the override, which was originally approved in 2004. School officials have said they will try for another election next year, but in the meantime they are bracing for what could be $400,000 in cuts next school year.

The measure will decrease by one-third next school year, and by another third the year after that.

However, the latest wild card is the $2.1 million set to flow into county coffers for schools courtesy of October’s $700 billion federal bailout bill. The money is part of the Secure Rural Schools program that provides funding to counties with large amounts of federal land.

The money is expected in January, which is when the school district expects to have a clearer idea of its budget next school year. The county has not yet determined what entities will receive how much money.

“It’s going to be an interesting and challenging year,” Superintendent Casey O’Brien said.

Legislators recently agreed that the fiscal year 2009 state shortfall could reach $1.2 billion, and county officials have predicted that the legislature will soon reconvene for a fresh round of budget cuts.

“Obviously we’re hoping that K-12 will be protected, but we also know the state budget issues are not resolved for both this year and the following year,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said he’s doubtful that legislators would renege on already appropriated education money.

The district will have a clearer idea of next school year’s funding in January after the 100-day mark. Per-student funding from the state is based on 100-day enrollment numbers.

O’Brien said that funding is guaranteed by state statute to increase 2 percent each year to account for inflation. “That, I feel, is pretty secure,” he said.

However, voters were unaware of this windfall when they defeated the override that helps to fund elementary physical education, school nurses and librarians. Specific cuts have not yet been proposed.

Conlin said Payson Kids Count spoke to community groups like the Rotary, Kiwanis, and at the senior center. “We tried to do what we could to get the word out,” Conlin said.

“We also sent out postcards to all the parents.”

The group spent roughly $700 to promote the override, compared to the $7,000 a group spent to publicize the $33.8 million bond measure voters passed in 2006. The $700 came from leftover bond promotion money.

“We made a decision not to ask for money,” to pass the override, Conlin said. Many organizations are running short these days. “We just didn’t feel it was right.”

The committee sent e-mails through a tree where each person sends e-mails to everyone on his or her contact list.

No informational sessions were held because Conlin said the sessions held for the bond measure were poorly attended and the group decided that wasn’t an effective way to spread information.

“This was a huge election and there were a lot of things on people’s minds,” Conlin said.

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