Payson school board incumbent Rory Huff and newcomer Barbara Shepherd won seats Tuesday night, along with the responsibility of steering the local school district through yet another year of likely cutbacks.
Challenger Darsha Oestmann finished third, with 25 percent of the vote Tuesday night. Another board vacancy still exists, left by Richard Meyer’s September resignation.
County schools superintendent Linda O’Dell said Thursday that she hasn’t yet decided how to fill the vacancy. School board members recently voted to recommend that O’Dell nominate the losing candidate. O’Dell has said that scenario isn’t automatic.
At some point, she is expected to announce an application period, followed by interviews conducted by a committee.
Shepherd, the top vote-earner with 38 percent, said her first-place finish surprised her. “I was the newcomer,” she said, since she moved to Payson three years ago.
Huff finished second with 36 percent of the vote, but was unavailable for comment before press time.
Shepherd said her first order of business involved attending a December school board conference in Phoenix which apprises members of their responsibilities and open meeting law requirements.
Shepherd, who works in Payson’s county attorney office, once served on the Globe school board. “I think people are ready for a change and maybe they’re hoping I can bring some new ideas.”
Meanwhile, voters on Tuesday also flunked Propositions 301 and 302, which effectively increased the state’s deficit overnight by $449 million, up to roughly $1.3 billion.
The propositions would have allowed lawmakers to sweep into the general fund money from a land preservation program and a tobacco tax that funded services for early childhood development.
The failure of those two measures has educators statewide wondering what the newly elected Legislature will cut in January.
“The Legislature has its work cut out for it,” said O’Dell. K-12 education absorbs 37 percent of the state’s budget. The large chunk almost guarantees that school districts statewide, now operating at 2006 funding levels, will see further cuts.
“The districts are nervous,” said O’Dell.
Payson Superintendent Casey O’Brien sounded characteristically optimistic Thursday. “We’ll figure a way through. We have no choice,” said O’Brien. Some superintendents “want to hang their heads. Everybody is going to have to cowboy up.”
How much the bronco will buck won’t be determined until the Legislature reconvenes in January. Complicating matters, state lawmakers could enact several far-reaching and expensive reforms for the next school year.
That includes a new rule that would retain third-graders who test poorly in reading and also a new way of evaluating principals and teachers tied more closely to student academic growth.
“You have to have very solid data measures and we don’t have that in Arizona,” said O’Brien. Collecting data costs money.
O’Brien speculated that the state will somehow sweep the $500,000 the district was supposed to receive in federal stimulus money. Even if Payson schools receive the money, O’Brien said the state will likely cut an equal amount from its funding.
“It’s hard to look at specifics because we don’t know what exactly will transpire,” said O’Brien. He plans a public meeting in the next week with teachers and other district staff.
O’Brien worried that with the district’s outward appearance of affluence — a new state-of-the-art elementary school, newly renovated auditorium and solar panel construction — people might not take the severity of education funding seriously.
However, the bond voters approved several years ago paid for the auditorium and elementary school. The district had to spend the money on facilities. It could not, for example, use the money to fund teacher salaries for a year.
Investors have paid for the solar panels, which the district will repay over the course of 15 years.
“Our day-to-day money is what’s being hit by the state budget,” said O’Brien.
“It’s going to take some creative problem solving,” said O’Brien. At least, with solidly Republican leadership from the Legislature through the governor, no party can blame the other as a stall tactic.
“There’s no reason for gridlock,” said O’Brien. Past Legislatures have blamed extraneous factors for the state’s problems.
“I think at some point, you have to take responsibility. This is our problem. We have to fix it,” said O’Brien about lawmakers.