School Closure Hearing Slated For Wednesday

Board braces for community input on plan to close Frontier Elementary School

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The Payson Unified School District on Wednesday will likely get an earful from parents, teachers, students and taxpayers on plans to close an $800,000 deficit by mothballing Frontier Elementary School and increasing elementary school class sizes significantly.

The 5:30 meeting will be held in the Julia Randall cafeteria/gym. The district will gather input on Wednesday and make a final decision roughly one month later.

A reconfiguration committee in December recommended not only closing Frontier and boosting class sizes, but converting the two surviving elementary schools into one K-2 school and one 3-5 school, while maintaining the middle school and high school relatively unchanged.

As a result, in the fall, two-thirds of the elementary school students in the district would change schools and a student who attended the district for his or her whole career would change schools four times.

A letter sent to parents throughout the district said that a 100-student drop in enrollment and the loss of federal stimulus grants have created a projected deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. In the past two years, the state has reduced per-student support for K-12 schools by 18 percent.

“With the loss of over 100 students sunsetting of federal stimulus dollars and reductions in per pupil funding from the state, PUSD is looking at having to reduce our budget by a minimum of one million dollars,” the letter from Superintendent Casey O’Brien concluded.

The letter said the School Configuration Committee included parents, teachers and administrators from all three elementary schools and settled unanimously on the recommendation to close Frontier and reconfigure both Payson Elementary School and Julia Randall Elementary School.

“These, needless to say, are very challenging times for PUSD and K-12 education throughout Arizona. We strongly encourage you to attend this important meeting,” wrote O’Brien.

The committee report also recommended increasing average elementary class sizes from 20-22 to 26-28 in the reconfigured schools.

The committee considered, but rejected, an alternative proposal to close one elementary school and shift to a K-8 system, which would require also reconfiguring the middle school.

Student scores in the district drop sharply as students enter middle school. That is consistent with an accumulation of national studies showing that students at K-8 schools have higher test scores and decreased discipline problems.

Moreover, a K-8 approach would require students to change schools only twice and result in most parents living much closer to the schools their children attend.

However, the consolidation committee came down against a shift to a K-8 system on several key grounds.

For starters, only the middle school has the full science lab and sports facilities to support programs for seventh- and eighth-graders, the committee concluded.

Moreover, the K-8 campuses would have far fewer children in each grade, which would result in an increase in mixed-grade classes.

The committee concluded that closing Frontier Elementary School — the smallest of the three elementary schools in the district — would save nearly $300,000 annually in staffing and maintenance costs.

The committee said the balance of the needed $1 million in annual savings would come from eliminating about 22 positions, half of them teachers.

The elimination of 10 or 12 teaching positions would force a significant increase in class sizes at the elementary school level.

Many national studies show that when class sizes get below about 18 in the early elementary school years students show significant gains in test scores and a host of other factors, including eventual high school graduation and college attendance rates. However, changing class sizes once they get larger than 18 doesn’t have a big impact on student achievement, according to many studies.

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