Deflecting accusations of parasitism, the Gila County Superintendent of Schools defended the county’s alternative schools during a recent forum, saying they provide a necessary service.
The county’s Payson and Globe education centers help students unable to earn a diploma through traditional high school.
“These are young people who most likely would not have graduated from high school,” said Linda O’Dell, the county schools superintendent.
The Payson Unified School District operates a similar school, the Payson Center for Success, and a dispute has been simmering about whether both schools are necessary.
“This is a labor of love for me; this is my passion,” O’Dell told the roughly dozen people assembled at the Citizens Awareness Committee forum in the Payson library.
The event’s purpose was for O’Dell to explain, in an election year, what her job entails. Mandates include providing fiscal services to the counties’ nine school districts and orchestrating school board elections. O’Dell also teaches juveniles in detention.
Democrat Debra Tapia Blair, a former employee of O’Dell’s, is challenging her for the seat.
O’Dell opened the Globe Education Center in 2005 and the Payson Education Center one year later after urging from the community to combat Gila County’s high dropout rate.
Alternative schools educate students who do not thrive in a traditional classroom setting because of behavioral problems, family problems or life problems, among other things.
Critics of O’Dell’s schools say they sap finite school funding resources, and the money that the county receives should instead fund Payson’s alternative school.
O’Dell has said her school acts as a last resort and captures students who have abandoned the educational system.
In some cases, O’Dell has said, she enrolls students who have been out of school for six months or a year.
Payson’s school board invited O’Dell to speak to it in August. The board asked why the schools couldn’t collaborate and voiced concern that when students leave the district, so does funding.
Payson school board candidate Buzz Walker recently said that funding for the education centers should be funding Payson’s alternative school. He advocated expanding Payson’s program.
Gila County has the fourth highest dropout rate in the state, according the Arizona Department of Education. In 2007, just over 6.3 percent of students dropped out of school in Gila County.
In Payson, 3.6 percent of students dropped out in 2007. Arizona’s rate was just over 4 percent. O’Dell said the dropout rate is improving, but still high.
However, educators often say dropout rates are inflated partly because they don’t consider students who take classes online. O’Dell said she is gathering those numbers locally, but statewide, eight online schools enroll 27,000 students.
Home-schooled students create another hard-to-track variable, although those students are required to file paperwork with O’Dell’s office. Roughly 500 have completed paperwork, but O’Dell suspects others remain undocumented.
The county superintendent of schools has no legal recourse to ensure that parents file the information.
In the education centers, half of O’Dell’s students are on probation, and 40 percent qualify for special education. Former probation officers work in both of O’Dell’s schools, and she says those close relationships help the students stay in school.
The school tries to help those who have dropped out, feel alienated, who have given up, or have been expelled from other schools, O’Dell said.
“I am not — we are not — seeking to take students away from the Payson Unified School District,” she added. “I have challenged the Payson school board to put me out of business.”
Currently, 50 students are enrolled in the Globe Education Center and 40 are enrolled in Payson’s Education Center. The Payson Center for Success educates roughly 50 students.
Jim Hippel, a financial advisor for the county superintendent of schools and co-chair of CAC, said O’Dell receives roughly $180,000 from the state to run Payson Education Center, which he said is “peanuts” compared to Payson’s $16 million maintenance and operations budget. O’Dell’s schools receive no property taxes, Hippel said.
“From a financial standpoint, there is no issue.”
From a social standpoint, Hippel said the school captures and educates students who could otherwise lead unproductive lives or “end up on the street.”
Some of O’Dell’s students have been expelled from other schools, Hippel added.
“We are providing, apparently, a needed service,” said O’Dell.