Enrollment Drop May Force Shift In Elementary School Makeup

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Grade level, not home address, could soon determine which elementary school Payson students attend.

The Payson Unified School District’s board decided Monday night to form a committee to examine the logistics of the dramatic shift — or to figure out another way to save money amidst shrinking budgets and declining enrollment.

About nine members will form the group, including board member Viki Holmes, as well as Superintendent Casey O’Brien, elementary school principals and parents.

A report is expected in January, and O’Brien said the district might implement the decision for the next school year. Closing Frontier Elementary School is not on the short list of options, he added.

“I’m hoping it’s an opportunity to do something that’s positive for the district in spite of the fact that we still have, I think, some financial challenges ahead,” said O’Brien.

Besides funding, the district must contend with the drop in enrollment.

O’Brien said a “natural downsizing” must take place.

Since 2008, the district has lost nearly 100 students for a total enrollment of 2,600 in 2010, according to the Arizona De­partment of Education. Enroll­ment at the elementary schools, however, continues to hover around 1,230 students.

O’Brien said the district will better grasp this year’s enrollment after the 20th day figures in mid-September.

By consolidating grade levels at certain schools, the district could avoid combination classes of multiple grades and ensure consistent class sizes. For example, if the district has too many third-graders for one class but too few for two classes, one option with the current school configuration would be to combine some third-graders with fourth-graders.

“That’s not the best way to do things,” said O’Brien.

Elementary schools configured by grade level could reduce the likelihood of that scenario by splitting entire grades into classes, not just the grades at a particular school site.

The committee will consider complications, including transportation costs and the potential of inconveniencing parents with children at multiple schools.

Last year, district officials said that they might have closed Frontier if the sales tax measure failed. Frontier’s former principal, Paula Patterson, lost her job during layoffs.

O’Brien said Wednesday that it was “premature” to say the committee would recommend closing the school. He added that the district currently has too many elementary-aged children to close a campus.

“We don’t have the classroom space to accommodate those kids at two schools,” said O’Brien. “The budget is pretty dynamic and we want to be prepared with options,” he added. “Closing is pretty extreme.”

Meanwhile, the district has lost $837 per student in funding cuts over the last three years. “That’s pretty significant,” said O’Brien. Per student state funding this year amounts to $3,474.

And although he has little clue how a new Legislature and governor will handle education funding next year, two federal revenue streams now sustaining the district will soon end.

Stimulus money, which has funded three specialists for an early intervention program, lasts through this year and money targeted to compensating schools in heavily forested districts will end in 2012.

Recently, Congress approved a $10 billion education bailout and Arizona could receive around $211 million. O’Brien said that translates into about $190 per student, but he doesn’t know how the state will distribute the money.

Whatever federal funding local schools gained offset even deeper cuts. “It’s not like it was a windfall,” he added.

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