School advocates and officials in Rim Country rejoiced this week when voters overwhelmingly approved the once-defeated budget override.
As schools everywhere face potentially devastating cuts due to the economic downturn, school leaders in Payson can fill in one of the largest variables with a big ol’ happy face.
“When I heard there was more than a 2,000 vote difference, that was a great surprise and a pleasant one,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
Other unknowns include May’s statewide sales tax measure and the legislative budget.
Indeed, 68 percent of voters approved the measure this year compared to the 52 percent that barely defeated the measure in 2008’s general election.
Voter turnout this year, however, was lower than in the 2008 general election. All told, 5,800 people cast ballots, which accounts for 46 percent of registered voters — that’s about 3,700 fewer people than in 2008.
Officials and campaigners attribute this year’s success to a more intensive effort and a more thorough understanding by the community of the urgency.
“When we went out for the override the first time, we were at the beginning stages of the recession and the real handwriting on the wall with respect to the cuts to school hadn’t hit yet,” said O’Brien.
In 2008, a few crusaders carried out a quiet campaign sustained mostly by e-mail trees and chats with local community groups.
This year, nearly 30 students, hoards of teachers, and other community activists overflowed the meeting room at the Payson Senior Center most weeks, walked through neighborhoods to knock on doors and raised money to install signs at intersection corners. They also mailed fliers.
“I think that people really pulled together,” said override organizer Craig Swartwood. “Time and time again, when someone’s in need, we all pull together for the common good and I think that’s what happened this time.”
Barbara Underwood, who worked on the campaign and also sits on the school board, said the effort encompassed the entire community.
“It’s like this weight off my shoulder,” she said. “I know we still have a tough road ahead of us because the state is continuing to make cuts,” but the override will “ease that burden a lot.”
Without the override, Payson Unified School District faced $1.7 million worth of cuts. The measure will add $11.21 annually onto the tax bill of a $100,000 home.
Even with the override, school officials will face difficult decisions in the coming months to solve an estimated shortfall of $1 million to $1.2 million — if voters statewide approve the sales tax.
The state could eliminate funding for all-day kindergarten and further reduce so-called soft capital, which funds textbooks and computers.
O’Brien’s eye now rests on May’s statewide sales tax vote. Should it fail, schools statewide could see $600 million in cuts.
“What we know now is the worst case scenario is not catastrophic,” said O’Brien. “But catastrophic means to me, you close a school.”
O’Brien expects lawmakers to soon move forward on developing a budget, mostly because it’s an election year and prolonged uncertainty could irritate voters.
Later this month, he could present to the board more specific information on next year’s options. O’Brien said he wants the ability to inform those potentially affected by layoffs early.