No Layoffs Proposed At Schools

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By eliminating 11 vacated positions, not paying for dental insurance, and making other cuts, the Payson Unified School District could manage its projected $800,000 shortfall next year without layoffs, school officials said Wednesday.

“It’s not wishful thinking on my part,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien about the potential for zero layoffs as he revealed the district’s proposal at a special board meeting in Payson High School’s auditorium. He added that music

and physical education will not fall victim to cuts.

The proposal includes no salary increases for any district personnel, changing insurance plans to save $122,000, and dropping dental insurance to save $105,000.

The plan also includes $108,000 in administrative cuts, which included reorganizing the curriculum and technology departments. The elimination of 11 positions by normal attrition would save $463,000. The proposal allows the district to scrape by, but with no carryover.

“Here’s a guy who used to land planes

on a boat in the middle of the night, so I might have a higher risk tolerance than some people,” O’Brien said. However, he added there is a difference between risk-taking and reckless behavior, and he said this proposal is not reckless.

“The fact is our district is downsizing. The fact is, we lost an override. We need to cut positions,” O’Brien said.

While significant unknowns remain, including how much money the state will cut from K-12 education, Payson will receive at least $1.2 million in federal funds to offset a projected $2 million loss of other funds.

The $2 million loss includes a decrease of $427,000 from the failed override, lost funding from declining enrollment, and a $493,000 cut in state money to help districts pay for the cost of utilities.

Revenue includes an estimated $800,000 in federal money from a rural schools program, $541,000 of which the district has already received. Another installment is due in July, though the amount is unknown.

Also, money from the federal stimulus package includes $145,000 to teach students at-risk of failing, and another $228,000 for special education.

Arizona expects to receive $803.5 million in a special state stabilization fund, which the governor applies for and disperses. However, O’Brien said nobody knows how much of that money the state will keep.

The catch with stimulus dollars is that the money can’t fund existing positions. “Believe me, I wish we could,” O’Brien said.

Four new positions could be created and paid for with stimulus funds to identify students who need help with math and reading, especially in kindergarten through grade three, to help them catch up.

Statistics show that students are more likely to succeed in middle school if they perform on grade level at an early age, O’Brien said.

“I think there’s the potential for a meaningful use of these stimulus dollars,” he said. More stimulus money will come in the fall, but the district’s challenge is to use it without creating expenses they can’t pay for once the money runs out. Next year could require more position eliminations, O’Brien said.

“Will that be painful? Yes. Will that be necessary? I don’t know,” he said. This year, “there will be displacement that occurs, but displacement is still a job.”

For instance, a teacher from the middle school will replace a vacant high school English teacher position, said high school Principal Roy Sandoval. An advanced placement history teacher will leave, but another teacher at the high school will switch into that position.

Meanwhile, the vacancies for boys basketball and football coaches will likely be filled from within.

“We will have a football team,” Sandoval said. “You’ve got to have a football team.”

Sandoval said while programs like advanced placement could be affected because it takes teachers several years to become proficient at teaching the rigorous classes, he praised the district’s proposal.

“I think Casey went about it in a very pragmatic way that is not overreacting, that is going to leave the district wiggle room if this economic crisis continues,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval said he’s not sure yet if any classes will be discontinued.

Class sizes could become larger at both the middle school and the high school by roughly one student.

High school classes, however, have more variables involved because of the number of specialized classes, Sandoval said. The numerous levels of math classes, for instance, necessitate teachers at every level.

At the elementary level, class sizes could actually decrease by roughly one student. However, O’Brien attributed that to a “bubble” of students that will graduate to other grades.

Adding to future predicaments is that the state is gradually increasing the number of math and science credits students must have to graduate. This could eventually require more teachers.

O’Brien said he was confident the proposal was realistic. School board members agreed.

“The plan is very plausible,” said Matt Van Camp after the meeting. “I think the superintendent and his staff worked hard to save jobs.”

Member Richard Meyer said he liked the plan as well. He mentioned during the meeting that he would like to see “fluff credits” like academic learning hours disappear.

However, he later said that he would wait until after the board revamped its mission statement this summer to pursue his agenda.

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