School Board Shuts Frontier

Budget brightens, but district still plans for layoffs, reconfiguration of elementary schools

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After a brief hearing before 70 dispirited parents and teachers, the Payson school board Thurs-day night voted unanimously to close Frontier Elementary School and reconfigure the remaining grade school campuses.

The decision means that next year one campus will harbor all the kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders in the district, and the other campus will have the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

The board rejected suggestions the district consider shifting to a K-8 system.

That means many of the elementary school students in town will attend a different school in the fall, although the board hasn’t yet decided which campus will host which grades.

“Have we examined every option possible before we decided to close a school?” asked newly appointed board member Kim Pound, participating by speaker phone.

“I feel this is by far the most strategic and viable option,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

Some parents expressed concern about the decision. “They came here with their minds made up,” said Melinda Rolan after the half-hour hearing. She said each of her four children will wind up in a different school next year.

“My kids are already on the bus for an hour a day,” she said, predicting that she’ll spend much of her day shuttling from one school to another.

Laura Nantry appealed to the board to consider other cuts to avoid laying off teachers and increasing class sizes. She provided a sheet that detailed $100,000 in cuts in the central office, enough to save two teachers. She also appealed to the board to consider an across-the-board, 5 percent pay cut, which would generate enough savings to avoid any teacher layoffs.

“Please review all possible options that would save teachers’ jobs” and avoid big projected increases in class sizes, she said.

Marti Shipley, a teacher at Frontier, said most of the teachers understood the need for the cuts and the reconfiguration. “It’s hard. It’s hard to let go. But we understand: the money is the money. I will really miss seeing the first-graders I’ve taught as fifth-graders.”

Closing Frontier will save the district an estimated $300,000 in utilities, maintenance, administrative and staffing costs.

In addition, the configuration committee recommended laying off 11 teachers, which would force a substantial increase in class sizes — mostly at the elementary school level.

Few people challenged the logic in closing Frontier, given the steady decline in district enrollment and the substantial costs of maintaining the facilities and providing utilities and administrators.

Confusion swirled around the calculations used to support the shift to a K-2 and 3-5 configuration, once Frontier closes.

O’Brien said Arizona already has the third largest average class sizes in the country and the third worst per-student spending.

However, O’Brien said the budget situation has brightened slightly since the configuration committee made its calculations that the district would have to lay off 11 teachers to save more than $500,000 and close the balance of a projected $900,000 budget gap.

The federal government has cleared the way for the state to drop some 250,000 people from coverage by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which reduces the chances of additional cuts in K-12 spending, he said.

Moreover, the bids on health insurance for the district’s roughly 300 employees look less costly than the administration had feared.

As a result, even in the “worst case scenario” the district will probably have to reduce the payroll by only nine teachers, which includes not filling the positions of two teachers who have already announced their retirements.

The committee also recommended laying off perhaps 10 other non-teaching employees, but those positions all stemmed from the closure of Frontier. The recommendations did not include any administrative cuts.

Those seven possible teacher layoffs could save the district roughly $350,000 — or about $50,000 per teacher, which includes the cost of benefits.

O’Brien said the committee’s recommendation of a shift to separate K-2 and a 3-5 school was based on the assumption the district would have to lay off 11 teachers. Based on that roughly 7 percent decline in the teaching staff, putting all the students at each grade level on a single campus would make it much easier to even out class sizes and avoid mixed-grade classrooms. The district’s enrollment this year dropped by 100 students, or about 4 percent.

The calculations could change if the district reduced administrative and other costs or embraced an across-the-board pay cut to avoid any teacher layoffs. In that case, two remaining K-5 schools would have more students in each grade than they do now. The district currently has no mixed-grade classes, but average class sizes in some grades differ by as many as 10 students.

Board members embraced the K-2 and 3-5 configuration based on the assumption of significant teacher layoffs. Several said they supported the K-2 configuration to reduce class sizes and reduce busing, although the class sizes would actually remain similar in either configuration and busing would likely increase with the K-2 approach.

“I could show you all my little pros and cons. There are a lot of different ideas,” said Board Chairman Barbara Underwood. “I’m leaning to K-2, 3-5, to keep classes small and eliminate combo classes” although the district has no combo classes now even with three elementary schools.

“I agree,” said Barbara Shepherd. “With K-2 you have less travel and more interaction” between teachers of the same grade level.

“I agree. I want to make sure we’re not going to be busing people all around town,” Pound said.

The board then voted unanimously to change the attendance boundaries of the schools, so every student from each grade level will attend a single school. Alan Ammann, a fifth-grade teacher, said he agreed with the changes. “Right now, you’ve got one class with 27 in one school and one with 17 in another — this will even things out.”

The administration will now prepare recommendations on which school will host various grade levels and determine how many teachers to lay off, with seven the likely maximum, said O’Brien.

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