School Board Faces Tough Decisions

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So who’s got the toughest job in town? This coming year, it could be the Payson Unified School Board, which faces choices ranging from bad to worse as it wrestles with a million-dollar deficit and a recommendation to close Frontier Elementary School.

We do not envy them the task — every option a handful of stinging nettles.

However, we do hope that the district makes student achievement the bottom line in every decision, based on the best possible research on education reforms.

Obvious in principle, perhaps, but prickly in practice.

Consider the issue of class size, one of the most intensely debated and studied elements of education reform.

The district’s consolidation committee recently recommended the closure of Frontier and a dramatic increase in elementary school class sizes to shrink the projected deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. If Frontier closes, elementary school classes could rise in size from maybe 20 to as many as 28 in some classrooms under the committee’s proposal.

In today’s Roundup, we present some of the key research on the impact such a dramatic increase in class sizes at the elementary school level might have.

Generally, the research shows that kids in grades K-3 do significantly better in classes smaller than 18, providing they have experienced and well-qualified teachers. Test score gains of about 14 percent persist for years.

Moreover, intriguing evidence suggest kids that start out in small classes with good teachers continue to reap benefits for decades when it comes to salary, college attendance and a host of other surprising benefits.

The small class size benefit for older students isn’t nearly so well documented. Moreover, the full benefits may not emerge without even smaller K-3 class sizes than Payson enjoys right now. Even more intriguing, the studies show little measurable benefit from squeezing a few students out of an already large class — especially in the higher grades.

What does that mean for Payson?

It suggests the district ought to move heaven and earth to find a way to keep K-3 classes at 18 — even if the average class sizes in other grades have to grow as a consequence.

The school board must embrace that kind of difficult, clear-eyed weighing of the evidence in making this most difficult of decisions. In the end, student learning must remain the test by which the board judges each option.

We do not envy them the toughest job in town — even if it is the most important.

Districts lead way on solar power

Rim Country school districts deserve credit for their creative and far-sighted efforts to take advantage of mostly federal grants — while getting students ready for a changing world.

Specifically, both Tonto Basin School and Payson Unified School District have moved quickly to bring solar technology to campus — which will in the long run benefit both students and local taxpayers.

In Tonto Basin, a $161,0000 federal stimulus grant paid the up-front costs of putting up solar panels. The panels will almost immediately cut the school’s power bills by 50 to 75 percent.

As an added benefit, the cells will surely make students more aware of energy alternatives, which promises to become one of the great challenges of the next generation.

Meanwhile, Payson Unified School District used grants and tax advantages to put together a $12 million deal funded by private investors, a sum the district will repay in the next 15 years with savings on its electric bill. After that, the monthly power bills will remain low and the district will own the equipment.

Now, if we can just get a green technologies ASU campus in town and maybe a solar cell assembly plant, Payson will have bragging rights as one of the greenest cities in the West — not even counting the pinyon pines.

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