Editor’s note: The Roundup will publish profiles of each school board candidate in preparation for November’s general election. Rory Huff and Barbara Shepherd are featured in this issue.
A year full of budget cuts, layoffs and difficult decisions made during emotional meetings, has strained members of the Payson Unified School District’s board.
But member Rory Huff has emerged for November’s campaign full of energy and certain that the board made good decisions.
“The high school is running extremely well,” said Huff.
“You go on campus, and there’s not people just milling around.”
New Payson High School Principal Kathe Ketchem has closed campus this year, which Huff said the board has worked for years to do.
“The policies were there,” said Huff. “They were just never enforced.”
Huff is vying for his second term on the board, of which he now serves as chairman.
Three people are running for two spots. Challengers include Darsha Oestmann and Barbara Shepherd.
The board has a third vacancy, created by member Richard Meyer’s resignation. The county schools chief will appoint his replacement, but she will probably not act until after the election.
Huff, a local Realtor who also has teaching certificates, says that he wants to focus on hiring and retaining the best staff possible.
Critics of the board’s layoffs and firings have said the process seemed personal and political, with the decisions made haphazardly. Critics say the decisions have hurt morale, and could make retaining teachers difficult.
Huff, however, says that teachers generally support the changes. “I would really like to see the community visit our campuses and see what is going on,” said Huff.
The district has exceptional staff and leaders, and they have risen to this year’s challenges, he added.
For example, Payson Elementary School Principal Will Dunman also oversees Frontier Elementary School this year after FES Principal Paula Patterson lost her job during spring’s budget layoffs.
Also, Julia Randall Elementary School Principal Rob Varner acts as part-time athletic director, also because of layoffs. Payson High School Principal Kathe Ketchem took over from laid-off Principal Roy Sandoval, in addition to her duties leading the district’s alternative high school.
Huff said the board stayed true to its mission of keeping the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. Frustratingly, members must remain mum because the issues involve personnel, he said.
“Right now I sometimes feel like (I’m in) a boxing match with my hands tied behind my back,” said Huff.
He says the district is “as transparent as the laws will allow.”
Huff also wants to place more emphasis on the district’s vocational programs since he says a large percentage of students enter the work force as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other trade professionals instead of occupations requiring a university diploma.
“I feel most of our efforts are spent getting students ready for college and a four-year degree,” Huff said.
With two children graduated from Payson High School — one daughter a nurse in the Valley, and a son in his senior year as an education major at Northern Arizona University — Huff said he appreciates the good education his kids received and wants to ensure other children have the same experience.
Funding will likely remain a critical challenge for the next couple of years. Huff supports the potential consolidation of Payson’s elementary schools based on grade level instead of location. The district has established a committee to examine if the move would save money.
The idea involves, for instance, moving all first- and second-graders to say, Julia Randall Elementary School, with third- and fourth-graders at another school.
The district thinks it might save money by stretching resources, but the committee is examining the logistics, which include busing kids across town.
Huff said the bussing concerns him, but he thinks the move might “be a positive step, both academically and monetarily.”
One of the board’s largest responsibilities, Huff said, is listening to the community, and then directing the district’s administration to create policies reflecting the community’s will.
Huff cited the newly closed high school campus as an example of how the board listens to the community.
The board voted to fence in the high school campus, and starting this year, the freshmen must stay on campus during lunch.
“Over 70 percent of the parents wanted this issue addressed,” said Huff.
“I feel we have taken a big step to addressing this matter.
“I just like to be part of the education process — of making our schools the best they can be,” said Huff.