Voters statewide approved the 1-cent sales tax measure this week, which means Payson schools avoided “mothballing” Frontier Elementary School and laying off enough teachers to qualify as crisis-mode, Superintendent Casey O’Brien said at a Rim Country Chamber lunch at Tiny’s Thursday.
“The voters didn’t say ‘Yes,’ they said ‘Yes’ with an exclamation point,” said O’Brien. “That was a surprise to me.”
Heading into a difficult year with the remaining faculty enduring more responsibility without more pay, drastic changes have included the loss of all-day kindergarten funding.
Other future changes, however, hold more promise. From new solar panels to the federal education reform effort, expansion will eventually follow this difficult contraction.
A failed sales tax measure would have forced another $1.3 million in cuts to the district, which already suffered $1.2 million worth of cuts for next year, including the loss of four administrative positions — two of those principals.
Teachers were largely saved, and class sizes will consequently remain stable, although O’Brien said the high school could see a small increase. Payson’s average class sizes will stay in the 28- to 30-student range, although other districts now assign 32 to 34 students per class. Lower elementary classes could have about 25 students per class.
And although Payson schools will muddle through the next few years, O’Brien said recouping losses will occur slowly. “It may have been an elevator going down, but it’s going to be the stairs coming back up.”
He added, “The good news is that I think we’re through the worst.”
The Legislature eliminated funding for all-day kindergarten next year, and O’Brien said he’s not sure what the future holds for the program. Payson will offer a tuition-based all-day program.
However, the district was able to sustain funding for music and physical education. With a statewide childhood obesity rate approaching 30 percent, O’Brien said teaching students how to exercise is critical.
Also important, reaching students with exceptional creative talent in music, for instance.
“It’s not about us; it’s about the child,” O’Brien said.
While the state slashes education budgets, the federal government is pushing reforms, including a money-doused “Race to the Top” program.
In the first round, Delaware and Tennessee will receive $100 million and $500 million respectively to implement a series of reforms.
“For Arizona, it was more like a race to the bottom,” O’Brien quipped of the grant application. However, the game isn’t over.
In the second round of applications, due June 1, states will compete for another $3.4 billion. O’Brien said Gov. Jan Brewer has hired one of the successful grant writers from the first round to enhance Arizona’s chances.
No Child Left Behind, the sometimes controversial education program installed by former President George Bush, will soon disappear and its successor will have a different name and different goals, O’Brien said.
Meanwhile, Payson schools are leading the way in energy efficiency and the district’s new solar panels will go up this summer.
The $12-million project won’t cost the district a penny. Arizona Public Service rebates and tax credits shave off a substantial portion, and outside investors cover the rest.
The district’s loan repayment basically costs the same as its utility bills, and, after 10 years, it owns the panels.
The panels stay good for 25 years and will generate 75 percent of the district’s power.
“We’re one of the first districts to do this,” said O’Brien.