School Juggles Budget Crisis Very Carefully

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We’ve been trying to come up with a good metaphor for preparing a school board budget these days.

A one-armed chain saw juggler walking on marbles?

Nah. Too safe.

A traffic cop in a gray raincoat at a broken stoplight in the fog? Nah. Too clear cut.

A cat herder in a catnip factory? Nah. Too predictable.

Forget it. Preparing a school budget should become the metaphor for any complicated, frustrating, bureaucratic craziness with grave real-world consequences.

So while we don’t for a moment envy the task confronting Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien, we kind of admire his approach.

Since the legislature holds the fate of every district in its stubby, quavering hands, lawmakers have naturally enough made everything as difficult as possible.

So the district faces a strict legal deadline for notifying teachers whether they’ll have a job next year, even though administrators have no clue how much money the legislature will actually provide. The projections range from painful to catastrophic.

So what to do? Some school administrators have decided to send out stacks of layoff notices, which they figure they can always take back once the legislature finishes feeding the budget into the wood chipper.

Fortunately, O’Brien considered the impact on teacher morale of such a convenient, but irresponsible approach. Instead, he announced a plan to cope with the projected cuts by not filling vacant positions and canceling the dental plan, among other cost savings. Mind you, this just buys some time. A windfall of federal stimulus funds has cushioned the budget blow this year. But the future loss of that cushion, declining enrollment and the foolish voter rejection of the school override all guarantee pain and suffering down the road.

At some point, the district will have to figure out whether it can afford to operate three elementary schools — and find ways to hack away at spending while protecting what’s happening in the classroom.

But it’s a case of so far so good, for a one-armed chain saw juggler in a foggy room full of crazy cats.

Reopen natural bridge now

Let us admit up front: We are prone to irrational fits of optimism. Granted, it’s unseemly in journalists: But despite all the evidence, we believe in the underlying reasonableness of human beings — with the possible exception of people who root for Show Low.

So we found reason for faint hope when it comes to the closure of Tonto Natural Bridge. After a dispiriting state parks board meeting on Friday, Assistant Parks Director Jay Ream seemed willing to consider a reasonable solution to an unreasonable problem.

We hope Rim Country’s leaders will do everything possible to help the state parks people crawl off the ledge with as much preserved dignity as possible.

Make no mistake, the legislature gets to play the bad guy in this scenario. Lawmakers filched $34 million out of various state park funds in the middle of the budget year.

But one of the park board’s improvised budget shuffles made no real sense — closing the world’s largest travertine arch. Tonto Natural Bridge not only pays its own way, but the 90,000 visitors it attracts contribute an estimated $3.6 million in Rim Country’s hard-pressed economy.

Supposedly, the state board closed the park to fix the historic lodge — endangered by a leaky roof and years of state neglect. Bullfeathers. The contractor can easily fence the lodge during construction, so people can continue to park and walk down to the awe-inspiring arch.

In truth, the parks administration closed Tonto Natural Bridge to shift staff to other hard-pressed parks — and perhaps to stir up a little public opposition to the legislature’s misguided attack on a rickety state parks system.

Got it guys. Message delivered. We’ve wept and wailed and railed at lawmakers. We’ve plastered it on the front page. We’ll swear allegiance to the park — maybe put a sign out front declaring Payson the home of the Tonto Natural Bridge. So could we get real now?

Fence the construction site and open the park Friday through Monday. Now we just need three rangers, say parks officials. All right, the head ranger is still watching the place anyway. That’s one. Now call back two of the seasonal rangers laid off a couple of months ago. Let’s split the difference — maybe state parks pays for one and Rim Country passes the hat and pays for the other.

Voila. Three rangers. Park opens. Tourists wander past. Summer season works out after all.

The legislature has a moment of clarity and sends a heartfelt note of apology. Oops. There we go again. Irrational fit of optimism.

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