Closing Frontier Elementary School and letting class sizes rise throughout the district represents the lesser of three evils the Payson Unified School District must face if it is to close a projected $872,000 deficit, school board members told a packed special board meeting on Wednesday.
The board seemed largely resigned to accepting the recommendations of the district’s reconfiguration committee and the objections of parents seemed muted.
The recommendation would cover about one-third of the deficit by closing Frontier Elementary School, with the rest of the savings coming mostly from staff layoffs — half of them teachers, said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
The committee recommended keeping Julia Randall and Payson Elementary open, but converting one into a K-2 school and the other into a 3-5 school. That would force students to change schools four times before graduating. It would also entail the frequent splitting up of children from the same family enrolled in different grades.
“This is about what is the least painful option, because there are no good options,” said O’Brien.
“There is not a board member who wants to close a school,” said school board member Rory Huff, “but we don’t see another option.”
Several parents spoke out against the closure and the re-organization.
Laura Obrien said she has two children at FES and wonders how she will get them to school on time if they are at separate schools, much less attend activities.
The superintendent said start times would be staggered and principals would work together so activities did not overlap.
Joanne Conlin wondered what the district would do with additional students if classrooms hit their capacity.
Adding portable classrooms at either school would work best, O’Brien said. He also promised parents that the district would look at setting a limit on the number of children in any one class.
Maria Higgins, mother of seven, asked the board if it had considered whether the district will lose even more students if it lays off teachers who have children in school.
PUSD Chairman Barbara Underwood said that was a good point, but that the district had to lay off staff given the magnitude of the deficit.
Even if the district closes a school, it must still lay off at least 11 teachers — which would represent about half of the total layoffs. Last year the district laid off a smaller number of employees, with administrators absorbing the bulk of the cuts.
District officials noted that people who now work at Frontier won’t have to absorb all the layoffs. Attrition might account for some or all of the reductions, with any layoffs spread throughout the district.
O’Brien said the Wednesday hearing was concerned chiefly with the school closure issue, as required by state law.
“This is a building decision not a staffing decision,” O’Brien said. “We will identify our strongest and proceed from there.”
With two elementary schools handling different grade levels, students would attend school based on what grade they’re in, not on where they live. This could mean longer bus routes, especially to outlying communities.
O’Brien said route lengths might increase, but minimally. Luckily, the district’s transportation pot of money will probably increase to cover the cost.
The volunteer committee comprised of parents, administrators and teachers considered other options, like keeping all three elementary schools open and switching to a K-8 format.
If the district doesn’t close Frontier, it would have to lay off 18 teachers instead of 11, O’Brien reported.
With three schools and fewer teachers, class sizes would jump sharply. Half-day kindergarten would bloat to 26 students and first- through fifth-grade would average about 40 students per class.
“This is not doable,” O’Brien said. “We couldn’t fit those numbers into a class.”
But even with two elementary schools, class sizes would increase. Half-day kindergarten would hover around 17 children and first- through fifth-grades at about 30 students — up from about 20 to 23 at present.
Many research studies show that student achievement rises significantly when class sizes are below 15 to 18 — especially in elementary school. However, many of those studies show that modest increases in class size above that threshold don’t have a big impact on scores.
The committee rejected the idea of shifting to three K-8 schools. The committee reasoned that the K-8 campuses would have far fewer children in each grade, which would result in an increase in mixed-grade classes. Moreover, the elementary schools converted into K-8 schools wouldn’t have the facilities needed to handle middle school science classes or sporting events. O’Brien also worried that the three K-8 schools could have to limit electives.
Numerous national studies suggest students in K-8 schools have higher scores and fewer discipline problems than comparable students in middle schools. Moreover, studies suggest that establishing three K-8 schools would result in fewer children in each grade, more connections between parents and neighborhood schools and less disruption when students change schools.
However, board member Rory Huff dismissed the studies. “You can find any statistic you want on the Internet.”
Underwood said the board took a field trip to the Alhambra School District in the Valley, which has both K-8 schools and middle schools. The superintendent of that district told board members the configuration of the schools doesn’t matter nearly as much as the quality of the principal and the teachers.
Superintendent O’Brien warned the dispirited crowd that even these cuts might not be enough, depending on what happens in the Legislature.
The district faces another year of painful cuts as the Legislature prepares to trim K-12 funding to balance its own budget crisis. Last year, the district trimmed $1.2 million from its budget by eliminating teacher, staff and administrative positions.
“We had painful cuts last year,” O’Brien admitted.
This year’s crowd seemed more understanding of the district’s predicament.
“It will be multiple years before we see a recovery,” O’Brien said. “There is nothing small we can do.”
The district is down nearly 100 students, representing a $580,000 loss in funding. This is further compounded by the state’s cuts and rising insurance costs. The district will also lose $275,000 in federal stimulus funding. Moreover, the district must cope with a $145,000 rise in employee insurance costs and an $80,000 increase in its contributions to the state pension fund.
If FES is closed, the board said it would consider leasing the property, since projections suggest the district will resume growing in several years.
The board will hold a second public hearing Feb. 24 in the JRE gym, at which point the board will likely make a decision on whether to close Frontier this year.