The Payson School Board on Monday took the first, surprisingly complicated step toward determining whether it can eventually sell the just-closed Frontier Elementary School.
The board unanimously approved Superintendent Casey O’Brien’s suggestions that the district find out whether the Arizona School Facilities Board will refuse to fund future school projects if the district sells the mothballed elementary school.
“This does not require the board to sell the site — and voters will have to approve any sale,” said O’Brien. “But it’s prudent to get clearance from the school facility board if we ever do want to sell the facility.”
The state set up the School Facilities Board to fund and approve basic school construction statewide in response to a 1994 court ruling that deemed the state’s education finance system unconstitutional.
Previously, districts financed their own construction projects through local property taxes and bond issues. However, that system resulted in dramatic differences in per-student spending between property tax rich districts like Scottsdale and property tax poor districts like Globe. After a four-year legal standoff, the Legislature established a system to use state general fund money to build new school facilities approved by the independent school facilities board. The system provides state funding for basic facilities, but allows districts to use local bond money to provide facilities above that minimum standard. That system now complicates the school district’s building plans as well as the sale of unneeded school sites.
O’Brien noted that the School Facilities Board could well refuse any future applications for money to build a new school if Payson sold Frontier now.
The School Facilities Board has established elaborate formulas to determine when school districts need additional facilities. If a district has more than a certain number of square feet per student, it can’t get money to add new buildings.
However, the state budget crisis in the past three years has largely dried up money for new school construction, leaving the board free to approve only emergency projects — like leaking, swaying roofs.
The Legislature this year cancelled 2 million square feet worth of previously approved projects, reducing spending on new school facilities to the lowest level in a decade. Several school districts have sued seeking to compel the state to adhere to the guidelines for new school construction set in the court case.
O’Brien said the school facilities board appears unlikely to approve any new facilities in the next few years.
“If they take that square footage off the books, they could be on the hook to build another school in the future,” said O’Brien.
“So they will look at it and decide whether we can sell it or not?” asked board member Kim Pound.
“They’ll do a very detailed analysis” of enrollment trends, said O’Brien.
The district has lost several hundred students in the past two years, which district officials have attributed to the number of young families who have left town as a result of the slump in construction and tourism. Faced with a nearly $1 million deficit — half of it as a result of the enrollment decline — the school board approved the closure of Frontier this year to save about $300,000.
However, Payson’s master plan envisions a town population that will top out at about 38,000. That would nearly double the town’s population — and presumably the enrollment in the 2,400-student district.
Some observers have speculated that if the economy recovers and Payson builds a four-year college here, the district could resume enrollment growth soon.
The uncertainty about the future has left the school board in a quandary about what do with the now-vacant school site.
Several neighbors have convinced the school to open the playground and playing fields to neighborhood kids after school, since the area off Mud Springs Road has no public parks.
However, the long-term future of the site remains unknown.
O’Brien said if the district doesn’t get approval from the School Facilities Board for any possible sale of the site, the district may find it can’t get state funding for new schools when the district resumes enrollment growth.
“If enrollment is increasing, given that the School Facilities Board really isn’t building new schools, it could be a long time” before the district gets any new funding.