School Board Sets Hearing On Closure

Jan. 19 hearing will focus on closing Frontier Elementary

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The Payson School Board Monday set a public hearing on whether to close an elementary school for Jan. 19.

That hearing will gather public input on the suggestion of an advisory committee that the district mothball Frontier Elementary School as part of a plan to avert a nearly $1 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.

“This hearing is required by statute,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien, who said the district will have to send at least two notices to almost everyone within the district.

One notice will notify residents of the possible closure of one of the district’s three elementary schools. The second notice will tell people how the school attendance boundaries will change.

“This is going to affect every parent in Payson,” said O’Brien, since even students attending one of the surviving schools might end up changing schools.

The board will gather reactions from the public to the proposed closure, which will come bundled with the reduction of 20 jobs districtwide, including an estimated 11 teachers.

The board would hear ideas from the public at the special meeting at 5:30 p.m., Jan. 19, then make its decision on which school to close on about Feb. 20, so the closure could take effect next August.

The board at the Monday meeting approved several new hires, mostly in special education and grant-funded positions not directly affected by the shuffle that will follow a school closure.

O’Brien repeated his assurances of last week that the staff reductions wouldn’t all fall on teachers, administrators and classified staff at Frontier — or whichever elementary school the board elects to close.

“This isn’t going to fall unfairly on the staff of Frontier,” said O’Brien, noting the district will follow an open process in deciding on any necessary layoffs.

Last year, layoffs of staff, teachers and administrators provoked criticism based on the lack of publicly revealed criteria, like seniority or job performance.

The school consolidation committee recommended the closure of Frontier and the reduction of staff. That loss of teachers could result in a jump in the average classroom size at the two remaining elementary schools from the present 20 to 27 or 30.

In addition, the committee recommended concentrating all of the students in kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade at one of the two surviving elementary schools. The third-, fourth- and fifth-graders would all attend the other remaining school.

As a result, the shift could require perhaps two-thirds of the elementary school students in Payson to attend a different school in the fall, while also shifting to significantly larger average classes.

The school consolidation committee considered and rejected a proposal to close Frontier and then convert the two surviving elementary schools and the middle school all to K-8 schools. Some research suggests such K-8 schools boost student achievement and reduce discipline problems. However, the committee concluded the schools lack equal science labs, auditoriums and sports facilities and that such a plan would result in too many mixed-grade classrooms.

The district’s budget deficit could easily grow much worse in January, when the Legislature resumes mud wrestling a badly out of balance state budget. The state faces an $825 million deficit in the current fiscal year and a $1.4 billion projected deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year. K-12 education accounts for about 42 percent of the state’s budget.

The consolidation committee concluded that the closure of Frontier would save about $216,000 in non-classroom staffing costs, $50,000 in heating and cooling bills and $66,000 on a principal’s salary. But that covers barely one-third of the projected deficit.

In something of a budgetary irony, the board also approved several new positions, most of them part time or grant funded.

The board accepted the resignations of high school attendance secretary Michelle Owens and special services secretary Jennifer Nelson. The board also approved the temporary return from retirement of Vickie Moore, to fill the special services secretary slot. O’Brien said the high school would leave the attendance secretary position temporarily vacant.

The board also approved the hiring of a special education aide. The state and federal government pay for special education teachers and aides through a separate fund.

The board also approved hiring an entry-level computer technician to free up the two, existing certified computer techs. The position will cost the district about $27,000, but O’Brien estimated the district will ultimately save more than $32,000 annually, which it now pays to outside contractors while improving services.

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