Budget Cuts Worry Teachers, Administrators

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Cuts within the Payson Unified School District have already corresponded into no money to replace decade-old textbooks and fewer teachers with fewer available class sections for students.

Elsewhere, a teacher who worked with emotionally disabled kids at the middle school moved to an elementary school. The vacant position at the middle school was eliminated, leaving another teacher’s day interrupted with calls to handle periodic student outbursts.

Last year, the district eliminated 11 positions, but avoided layoffs, due to budget cuts.

Keeping morale high is difficult, principals say, but the district is struggling to keep programs in place.

This coming school year, the district faces a $1 million deficit if March’s override election fails. Without the override, schools must cut a projected $1.7 million.

Voters in 2008 decided against continuing Payson schools’ $1.2 million override, and the money began phasing out in thirds this school year.

On March 9, voters will decide whether to resume the measure, which would cost $11.21 annually in taxes on a $100,000 home.

Advocates for March’s budget override election have earnestly worked, creating signs for people to stick in front yards, on car windows and on holding weekly Wednesday meetings at the senior center.

This past Wednesday, more than 100 people huddled in the Payson Senior Center, planning for Saturday’s publicity blitz about the upcoming election.

Time before the big day is dwindling, and a feeling of urgency descended upon the room.

“We took this healthy school district and put it on this diet,” said Craig Swartwood, an override committee organizer. “If we stay on this diet, we’ll fast to death.”

On Saturday, advocates will knock on doors to campaign and Macky’s is holding a Tip a Teacher event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. where tips help Payson schools.

Advocates and those in the district say the stakes are high.

“I’ve cut for the last five years,” said Payson High School Principal Roy Sandoval. In 2006, the high school had 42 more students than it does now.

However, Sandoval has eliminated five-and-a-half positions since then.

Last year, because of the position eliminations, Sandoval cut three physical education sections, three weight classes and drafting. The year before that, he cut three Spanish sections.

Sandoval said he’s tried to cut without affecting the quality of education. “I’m out of room,” he said. “I’m out.”

At the middle school, Principal Gary Witherspoon is trying to maintain teacher morale despite doling out more work to teachers after losing four positions last year.

Greg Lanners used to teach a life skills class, but this year he switched to teaching sixth-grade.

Without Lanners teaching sixth-grade, class sizes would have reached 38 students. With the extra sixth-grade teacher, class size runs about 30 students. Witherspoon says he prefers class sizes around 25.

Another big loss for the middle school was a full-time person who worked with emotionally disabled students. That staffer moved to an elementary school during the district’s rearranging last year.

Consequently, highly emotional students stay in regular classrooms for most of the day, and teachers have needed additional training on how to handle those students.

“You can’t treat those students the same,” said Witherspoon. “They have different needs.” For instance, an autistic child might be an extreme perfectionist and have a meltdown if he doesn’t complete a task correctly.

Deb Jones, who runs a computer lab for students who either move more slowly or quickly than their peers, is now the first in a chain of command for students having outbursts.

“Deb Jones is a great, great teacher. She has been able to stay afloat, but the learning curve has been great for her,” said Witherspoon.

Witherspoon said that for the less severely emotionally disabled students, the move is actually a good thing.

“If we can have them function in the regular education classroom, we want to be able to do that.”

But some students need small group interaction. “That’s kind of gone to the wayside because of cuts,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon has also cut down on field trips, textbook purchases, and teacher conferences for career development.

Replacing decade-old social studies textbooks is postponed. Witherspoon said the books are not only old, but there aren’t enough for students to take home. That impacts the ability of teachers to assign homework.

Money will be tight next year even with the override. Sandoval said all programs beyond state requirements are at risk for elimination, especially the advanced placement classes.

Those classes absorb two periods and frequently have fewer students per class, although roughly 100 students schoolwide take the nationally certified courses. Sandoval says that devoting those resources to non-essentials might not be possible without the override.

High school senior Elizabeth Luna attributes her acceptance to the University of Pittsburgh with the advanced placement classes she took. “Our world keeps advancing,” she said. Payson needs to keep pace.

Senior Nick Walker has received congressional nominations for the U.S. Naval Academy, which he also attributes largely to advanced placement classes, including chemistry, history, calculus and physics.

Sandoval said the courses make Payson students nationally competitive, and help them win large scholarships. Advanced placement courses are nationally certified, college-level courses for which students can receive college credit if they score high enough on a year-end test.

Override advocates say offerings like AP courses can help attract and retain people in the community.

“We know that we have to do the state standards, which are very minimal,” Sandoval said. “You want to give way more than the minimum to survive.”

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