School Board Will Face Tough Budget Decisions

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Faced with a budget deficit of at least $1 million for the next school year, the Payson Unified School District board is treading lightly, leaving it up to the superintendent to formulate proposals for a balanced budget, members agreed Monday night.

Superintendent Casey O’Brien will concoct several scenarios, and in February, present to the board the district’s options should voters approve March’s override election, or flunk it. With the override, the district faces a $1 million deficit, and $1.8 million without it. Voters failed the $1.2 million override renewal in 2008, and the money is in the process of phasing out over three years.

Financial projections fluctuate frequently because of legislative uncertainty. O’Brien says he’s still not sure how many positions or programs are at risk. But with 83 percent of the district’s budget dedicated to personnel, teachers and support staff are likely to get hit.

Board members said they wanted any cuts to nevertheless reflect a commitment to their mission, vision and goals. They also wanted to maintain a strong core curriculum of math, science, history and English, while retaining the high school classes needed to enter college. They also wanted to maintain transparency.

“I really don’t want to tell Casey what programs to save,” said board member Matt Van Camp.

Board member Viki Holmes agreed. “I’m not in the position to tell the superintendent what to do,” she said, adding that he’s supposed to make recommendations to the board.

The override is for now one of the district’s largest variables, representing an extra $800,000 next year.

The state legislature also creates profound uncertainty, with Gov. Jan Brewer proposing cuts like axing full day kindergarten to balance Arizona’s projected $1.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2010 and $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2011.

Board members briefly disagreed about how soon they should make budget proposals available. Van Camp, along with members Rory Huff and Barbara Underwood, worried that prematurely announcing drastic cuts that might not materialize would unnecessarily stress people out.

Member Richard Meyer urged the district to release information as it came in, saying that rumors tend to grow unwieldy without facts to control them. Holmes agreed, saying that people who worked for the town were anxious for updates about potential layoffs.

Board members did agree that they didn’t like the word “cuts,” instead preferring, “adjustments.” The board also agreed that teachers would know by April if they had jobs for the next year. The legislature changed the law, dropping deadlines for districts to disburse contracts by, but board members agreed that informing teachers was important, especially for keeping the “best and the brightest” who may find jobs other places while waiting for their PUSD contract.

After February’s various budget scenarios, more complete projections will be available in March, after the override election. In April, O’Brien will release specific recommendations for keeping and releasing programs and personnel. A preliminary budget will become available in May, with a final budget adopted July 15.

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