Committee Urges Closing Frontier

Payson school board starts process aimed at saving $1 million and closing one of three elementary schools

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The Payson Unified School District will close Frontier Elementary School next year if the school board accepts the recommendations of its School Configuration Committee presented at a special meeting on Thursday night.

The board voted unanimously to start the two-month process of deciding whether to close one of the district’s three elementary schools to cope with its dwindling enrollment and a projected deficit of nearly $1 million. Even if the board does close one of the elementary schools, the committee’s recommendation would result in a nearly 50 percent increase in class sizes at the remaining elementary schools.

The board will launch the process formally at its meeting on Monday and then must by statute hold two public hearings on the proposed closure in the next 60 days. That could result in a decision by roughly Feb. 15.

“In the end, the committee concluded ‘how much choice do we have? One is insanity, the other is not good,’” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

The consolidation committee recommended that the district close Frontier Elementary School, since it has fewer classrooms and more maintenance problems.

The committee also recommended that the district concentrate all the kindergarten, first- and second-graders at one of the surviving elementary schools and all the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at the other.

The committee rejected keeping all three elementary schools open. It also rejected the idea of closing one elementary school and converting the middle school and two remaining elementary schools to K-8 campuses.

O’Brien warned the board that closing an elementary school and reducing staffing by about 20 positions through layoffs or attrition will only take care of the million-dollar shortfall caused by declining enrollment and the loss of federal bailout funds.

Additional cuts possible

If the Legislature cuts K-12 spending to close a projected $800 million budget deficit this year and a projected $1.4 billion deficit in fiscal 2011-12, the district may have to make deep, additional cuts.

“We can solve a problem here based on the current numbers,” said Casey, “but if the Legislature decides to cut another half a billion out of K-12 spending, then that’s going to affect the middle school and the high school, too.

O’Brien said the consolidation committee met four times in the past few months to grapple with the increasingly bleak numbers.

Board members swallowed hard, looked grim and voted to make the decision as quickly as possible, electing to put the vote to launch the process on its Monday night agenda.

“Hopefully the administration as soon as it possibly can will make a decision,” said board president Rory Huff. “Hopefully, there won’t be any layoffs — just attrition.”

The committee comprised of teachers, employees and parents grappled with the inexorable budget figures, compounded by an accelerating loss of students. The district this year lost about 111 students, which will automatically reduce support from the state next year by some $550,000 in a not quite $13 million operations and maintenance budget.

In addition, the district will lose more than $326,000 in federal payments, which includes stimulus money and payments intended to compensate the district for loss of taxes from Forest Service land.

If the district doesn’t close a school site, it would have to cut the equivalent of 18 teaching positions to make up the gap, said O’Brien. If those cuts were concentrated at the elementary school level, class sizes would increase from about 20 students per class to 35 to 38 per class, the committee concluded.

Half of cuts would be teachers

If instead the district closed Frontier Elementary School, it would have to cut only about 20 positions, perhaps half of them teachers. The district would save $50,000 on heating bills, about $216,000 in non-classroom staffing costs as well as the roughly $66,000 cost of a principal’s salary. That option envisions cutting about 11 teaching positions, which would cause class sizes at the elementary schools to rise to between 27 and 30.

“These are numbers we have just not seen before in the elementary schools in Payson,” said O’Brien.

The committee suggested the district should concentrate K-2 in one school and grades 3-5 at the other. That would force more busing and compel students to change schools more often, but would avoid mixing different age groups of students in a single classroom.

Committee rejects K-8 system

The committee largely rejected a shift to a K-8 system, despite a growing body of research suggesting that a well-designed K-8 system that eliminates middle school can boost student achievement and reduce disciplinary problems.

However, the committee decided that shutting down Frontier and converting three campuses to K-8 schools would create too many problems and cause too many inequities. Right now, the campuses don’t all have the necessary science labs, auditoriums and sports facilities.

Moreover, a K-8 system would require more mixed-grade classrooms than breaking up the grade levels into two elementary schools.

O’Brien said the district would likely mothball Frontier Elementary School rather than sell it. Current projections suggest that enrollment will continue to decline for the next few years, but then reverse itself as Payson’s population swells.

By 2018, the district would likely return to the 2006 school enrollment levels. However, if Arizona State University builds a campus in town, the schools would likely resume growth much more quickly.

“ASU is kind of a wild card — it could make a difference in three or four years. But that doesn’t help us next year,” said O’Brien. “If this year we were up 100 students instead of down 100 students, then we wouldn’t have this problem now.”

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