Recent cuts at Payson High School appear to have deeply divided teachers, with some supportive of the decisions and others questioning the motives behind them.
Disparate sentiment nearly lends the illusion that teachers work at different schools.
One teacher called the cuts “what’s best for kids and teachers,” and another said he liked how the superintendent collected input. Others, however, called layoffs “arbitrary” and thought them “political axes to grind.”
Two of five teachers interviewed said the cuts seemed sporadic and potentially political, and two others said they supported both the methodology and the results. The fifth, who is newer to the school, said she understood some of the decisions.
Teachers spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.
The Payson School Board recently laid off the top three administrators at PHS as part of $1.2 million in cuts from next year’s budget.
The layoffs, which board members approved over two terse meetings with no discussion, spurred a similar divide in the community, with some decrying the lack of transparency and others applauding the swift execution of difficult and necessarily confidential decisions.
Teachers generally agreed that morale had sunk on campus, although some attributed the malaise to more responsibility without more money, while others cited dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement.
“Morale is low,” wrote one teacher in an e-mail, “but not necessarily because of the administration issue/changes.”
The teacher wrote that the lack of raises for the past three years, rising insurance costs and the fear that the sales tax election could fail next week have all contributed to the campus funk. Failure of the sales tax issue could cost Payson schools another $1.2 million.
The teacher wrote that the superintendent and board insulated classrooms from the impact, and agreed with the Legislature’s elimination of seniority as a consideration for layoffs or rehiring. “Being retained shouldn’t be determined by how many years one has worked,” he said said, “but rather by one’s performance.”
Another teacher called that notion “naive and misguided,” and likened the school to “a sinking ship.”
“It’s every man for himself,” he said, adding that teachers have no solidarity. He lamented the loss of the teacher’s association years ago.
“I believe in employee empowerment,” the teacher said. “Not in a radical union way, but in a positive way that builds staff morale.”
He thought the decisions political, and said “I think there were some axes to grind.”
The current campus climate is “the antithesis of empowerment,” he added.
Another teacher agreed saying, “A lot of people are staying in their classrooms. They’re not going out. They’re not sure who they can talk to.”
The teacher also thought that politics drove the decisions. “I do think they’re meeting behind closed doors,” she said. “You’re wondering, ‘who did I ever make mad?’”
People are nervous about whether they’ll have jobs come fall, teachers said, since more cuts may come.
Another teacher supported the decisions. “He didn’t do it willy-nilly,” the teacher said about O’Brien’s methods. “He took feedback from all the sites.”
The decisions were hard and O’Brien is paid to make them, the teacher said. “I think he went about it in a better way than it’s perceived in the public.”
The first teacher agreed. “The administration change at PHS will be what’s best for kids and teachers.” A school can’t run without teachers, although it can run without a principal, the teacher said.
He said the previous administration didn’t enforce rules consistently and didn’t spend enough time in the classroom, helping teachers.
Another teacher said she felt lucky to have a job, but worried about more responsibility and bigger classes.
“It’s sad to see people go,” she said, although she agreed with some of the decisions. About the incoming administration she said, “I think it’s just a different focus. I think there are some good things about that. I’m OK with it.”
She said although staffers may have liked to have input, Payson’s method mirrors those of other districts.
The teacher quoted earlier who supported O’Brien said, “It’s not about me, or another teacher, it’s about the kids. That’s what it’s all about.”