No Way Around Cuts To Teaching Positions

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Payson School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien explains about future budget cuts at a meeting attended by about 50 teachers Wednesday.

If May’s sales tax vote fails, the Payson Unified School District will have to cut the equivalent of 25 teachers, Superintendent Casey O’Brien told a gathering of about 50 teachers Wednesday.

The matter-of-fact meeting followed Monday’s emotional board meeting where the board laid off nine people quickly, without discussion, yet only partially solved the existing $1.2-million shortfall. O’Brien said more layoffs are to come, but likely fewer than 10 teachers.

PUSD is one of the area’s largest employers, and employs about 175 teachers.

Should the statewide sales tax measure fail, the Payson school district’s deficit will balloon to $2.4 million from its existing $1.2-million shortfall.

“It’s the override all over again,” said O’Brien. “These cuts will be devastating.”

When O’Brien revealed that the fallout of the proposed sales tax could cost 25 local teaching jobs, several audience members gasped. That doesn’t mean 25 teachers would lose jobs should the measure fail, just that 25 teachers’ salaries equal approximately $1.2 million.

“Can you manage the district? Yes. But is it the same district? No,” said O’Brien. “I can’t say what the quality of education will be if we cut that many teachers.”

Monday’s reductions, which included laying off two principals, accounted for just $841,000 of the current $1.2-million deficit. The remaining money will come from attrition and more layoffs, which will be announced at the April 12 board meeting.

“The magnitude of this problem, attrition can’t solve it,” O’Brien said. “These are not nice-to-have positions that we’ve cut. They’re critical, but we did this to avoid cuts in the classroom.”

Payson schools won’t fund athletics or other co-curricular activities such as band through next year’s operations budget. The cuts don’t mean that the district will stop offering these programs, just that the funding will come from other places.

Students will pay anywhere from $200 to $400 to play sports next year. The move saves the district $110,000.

Local schools also fell victim to the statewide all-day kindergarten funding cut. Parents can pay $185 per month if they choose to enroll their children. Part-day kindergarten will continue.

Losing all-day kindergarten accounted for $230,000 of the total $841,000 axed from the budget Monday night.

Each section of all-day kindergarten needs a minimum of 20 children to begin. Although each school would ideally have a section, enrollment will drive the final number, and parents are responsible for transportation.

“We’re not doing this to make money,” O’Brien said. “We’re doing this as a service to parents.”

The district’s estimated deficit has grown larger over time — from a once-estimated $800,000 to the current $1.2 million because of ever-changing numbers from the state, O’Brien said.

“This wasn’t because we were doing fuzzy math. The state was doing some fuzzy things and we had to make changes,” he said.

And although the board has placed importance on retaining physical education, art and vocational programs, those curriculums will face cuts should the sales tax vote fail.

At the next board meeting, O’Brien will present a balanced budget plan and the board is expected to issue contracts. However, language in the agreements will allow the district to rescind offers should finances change.

Lawmakers adopted a budget assuming that the statewide sales tax vote would pass. Should it fail, O’Brien said certain “triggers” would cut school funding even more.

As of now, the district’s so-called “soft capital” money that pays for textbooks, computers and copier leases has been cut 80 percent. This year, the district received about $640,000 in soft capital.

If the sales tax vote fails, that money will disappear entirely, forcing the district to pay for leases and other obligations out of the general fund. The district would also reconfigure elementary schools to accommodate larger class sizes.

“If you have 32 kids, you sure want them all first-graders and not first- and second-graders,” O’Brien said.

Non-core classes like physical education would disappear, and vocational and advanced placement classes would decrease.

Fewer custodians would mean teachers would have more kids, more work, and the responsibility of cleaning their classrooms.

“Just imagine if we lost the override and I showed you this,” O’Brien said. The district would have been forced to close an elementary school and possibly the alternative high school. “But we’re not looking at that,” he added.

On Monday, the board approved a laundry list of cuts with no discussion. Several people expressed support for high school principal Roy Sandoval. In addition, one of the laid off librarians sent in a letter to be read aloud in defense of her position.

O’Brien said the decisions were made after taking input from suggestion boxes at various school sites, and culling the opinions of various advisory boards.

“That input was critical,” O’Brien said. Difficult decisions are sometimes best made expediently, he added, to minimize emotion.

At the board meeting, member Richard Meyer said it’s best to make decisions coldly but deliver them with empathy.

O’Brien repeated this sentiment after Wednesday’s debriefing and said he’s seen boards make wrong decisions after long and emotional meetings of tormented back and forth discussion.

O’Brien said he remains optimistic about the sales tax vote, and that the district’s finances will improve.

“The cuts we make now are the worst we’ll see,” he said.

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