School District Layoffs Less Than Thought

Budget outlook ‘much better picture than we might have thought’

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The Payson Unified School District will lay off six teachers and increase average class sizes in many elementary school grades by nearly 20 percent, according to a pair of budget briefings offered on Wednesday.

After plugging in the latest state budget figures, Superintendent Casey O’Brien concluded the district may get by without laying off any administrative or classified staff — but will have to reduce the number of teachers by 10 — which includes four teachers who have already said they won’t be back next year.

The budget plan will also eliminate 15 classified staff positions, but resignations may avert layoffs.

“It’s a much better picture than we might have thought,” O’Brien told a subdued meeting of about 60 district employees on Wednesday evening. “No one likes to look at having to make a reduction in staff, but when

you’re losing kids it’s unrealistic to think that you can maintain the same staff.”

Payson schools lost about 100 students this year, which will reduce state support next year by more than $500,000. In addition, the school board has already voted to close Frontier Elementary School, which will reduce the number of elementary school classrooms by nearly one-third. The school district lost about the same number of students during the last school year.

Teachers generally expressed weary resignation and some a growing dismay at the plight of public schools.

If the school board approves the cuts, next year’s operating budget will drop 7 percent to $13.9 million. Back in 2009, the operating budget stood at $16.4 million.

The school board heard the same mixed news at a study session earlier in the day. The board asked only a handful of questions about the changing projects and mostly expressed relief that the numbers had brightened from the earlier, doomsday projections — which would have included about four more teacher layoffs and significantly larger class sizes.

The board will meet on Monday at 5:30 p.m. to act on the administration’s recommendation, including possible approval of the six teacher layoffs. The board could also decide whether to adopt the recommendation in a poll of parents that would put the 3rd-5th grade classes at Julia Randall Elementary and K-2 at Payson Elementary School.

The teachers at the meeting took the news quietly, asking only a scattering of questions about the changes that will result in almost every elementary school teacher in the district shifting either classrooms or school sites.

However, after the meeting, many teachers expressed dismay and discouragement about yet another round of dislocating changes and cuts.

“It’s just so devastating at every level,” said one high school teacher who asked not to be named. “It’s absolutely horrifying what’s happening to public education. Our energy is just being drained. Every year we get more responsibility and fewer resources and then we’re getting blamed.”

Another teacher commented, “It’s not really this district. It’s the national level. Teachers are just not appreciated for what we do.”

Another teacher said it seemed unfair that all of the layoffs and most of the cuts will fall on classroom teachers, who comprise a minority of the district’s employees.

“We are a small district and a shrinking district, but the district office has an assistant superintendent and something like eight secretaries. There’s fat in the district office that hasn’t been touched.”

Other teachers said they were relieved the district will protect most of its programs and not suffer the class size increases included in some earlier budget projects.

High school teacher Ingrid Schon said, “I’m encouraged by what Casey said. It sounds like they’re doing a good job of making the cuts. Maybe it does sound a bit unfair that they’re only laying off teachers, but that’s really coming from the governor and the Legislature.”

Another teacher said she had no energy left to protest. “I think I need to get a second job.”

Teachers haven’t had a raise in three years, but will have to put an extra 1 percent of their salary into the retirement system and next year teach larger classes. The Legislature also eliminated stipends for extra training, which will amount to a 1 percent pay cut for some teachers in the district each year for the next five years.

O’Brien said even wealthy school districts like Scottsdale have suffered much bigger changes than Payson. He said Scottsdale schools plan to increase average elementary school class sizes to more than 33.

Ironically, the brightening in the financial projections means the district will have to scramble to find enough classroom space at the two remaining campuses. O’Brien said the district will probably have to buy and install several portable classrooms at either Payson Elementary School or Julia Randall Elementary School in the fall.

The district’s projections suggest average class sizes won’t change in preschool or kindergarten. But they’ll rise by 10 to 19 percent in grades 1 through 5, with the biggest increases in the upper grades. Class sizes won’t change much in middle school or high school.

Currently, average elementary school class sizes rise steadily from 19 in kindergarten to 26 in the fifth-grade — although the variation in enrollment at the three campuses results in some classes that are much larger or smaller than the average.

Next year, average class sizes will range from 19 in kindergarten to 31 in 4th- and 5th-grade. The class sizes at each grade level will likely be much more consistent under the plan that will put all of the students in K-2 at one school and all the 3rd-5th-graders at the other campus.

Two months ago, the district’s projections envisioned laying off 22 employees, half of them teachers.

O’Brien this week said resignations and reshuffling could avoid most — if not all — of the projected layoffs of classified staff. Meanwhile, resignations would likely avoid all but six of the teacher layoffs.

The district will also need one less administrator as a result of closing Frontier — although the actual savings works out to just the $10,000 salary the district has been paying one principal to manage two schools.

The district’s administration will suffer few cuts under the plan. By contrast, last year administrative staff bore the brunt of the cuts, with a 20-percent reduction. Layoffs among the teachers last year totaled about 8 percent.

This year, the loss of 10 teaching positions represents a roughly 7-percent reduction in the teaching staff.

Currently, about 81 percent of the district’s budget goes to salaries and benefits.

Of that, teachers account for 67 percent, administrators for 9 percent and classified staff for 24 percent — which includes counselors and nurses.

The proposed staff reductions will save the district an estimated $769,000 next year. The cuts in the ranks of the teachers will account for 70 percent of that reduction, plus the $100,000 in stipends for the remaining teachers.

The state budget also includes some unanticipated hits, said O’Brien.

For instance, the Legislature cut off funding for 9th-graders taking career and vocational classes, which will cost the district about $130,000. The district has worked hard to expand its vocational offers in partnership with Gila Community College.

For instance, the district wants to offer a four-year set of courses next year for students who want to become engineers despite the most recent state cuts.

The Legislature also cut off almost all money left in a fund used to buy textbooks and classroom materials. The district’s budget for those “soft capital” items has fallen from $600,000 annually two years ago to $60,000 next year.

The Legislature has also taken away almost all of the money the state once provided for capital improvements. As a result, Payson’s capital outlay fund will drop by $332,385 next year.

The district will also have to pay an extra $134,000 into the state retirement fund.

Moreover, the district will lose about $315,000 in extra federal stimulus payments — roughly the cost of the salaries and benefits for the teachers the district will end up laying off.

O’Brien said the district has to make sure to cut everything it can this year to prepare for the impact of the loss of another $450,000 in federal money next year.

But the budget summary also included glimmers of good news.

For instance, the district will have to shell out $135,000 less for health care coverage for employees than anticipated and will get an extra $193,000 from a state formula that pays districts more based on the training and experience level of the teachers.

As a result, many employees will see the amount they have to pay for health care coverage drop by 9 percent, thanks to the district’s decision to change insurance plans this year.

Moreover, the state budget didn’t change the basic $3,440-per-student level of support, which compares to a reduction of $42 per student last year.

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