School Closure: Only Bad Options

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The Payson Unified School District made a strong case for closing Frontier Elementary School Wednesday night before a suffering, but largely accepting crowd of parents and teachers.

However, the administration made a weak case for a plan to stick to a middle-school system and juggle grade levels at the two surviving elementary schools.

Superintendent Casey O’Brien laid out the grim details for the respectful audience seated in the Julia Randall Elementary School gym.

The district faces an $872,000 deficit in the fiscal year that starts in June. The deficit stems largely from steep declines in both state and federal support, coupled with the impact of dwindling enrollment. Clearly, the district faces tough decisions despite the careful financial management and sacrifices of the past two years.

Closing one school site will save the district nearly $300,000 annually in maintenance, utility and staffing costs. In truth, the district probably should have faced up to this necessity sooner — but it now seems unavoidable. Unfortunately, Frontier appears the most logical candidate, given its smaller size and larger operating costs.

But the school consolidation committee also recommended the district turn one of the two remaining elementary schools into a K-2 campus and the other into a 3-5 campus. The committee rejected a K-8 system.

The new configuration would have some significant advantages — mostly by making it easier to efficiently pack the dear little sardines into boxes neatly marked by grade level. That would minimize the number of mixed-grade classes, which pose challenges for teachers.

However, the district’s entire focus seemed on making it as easy as possible to pack those sardines — rather than doing the least possible harm to students’ academic progress. Moreover, the plan seemed to accept a dramatic increase in class sizes — without any discussion of the potential impact on achievement.

For instance, the proposed shift would force children to repeatedly change schools as they advance. Research suggests that will hurt students academically. Moreover, a growing body of research suggests students in the upper grades do better in K-8 schools than in middle schools — a finding supported by a drop in scores at Rim Country Middle School. Finally, the new plan would damage the connection between parents and neighborhood schools.

School board members expressed little public interest in challenging the committee’s recommendations. Several members simply dismissed research on how these changes could impact learning.

Clearly, the district must close a school site. However, we hope the administration and the school board will spend the next month working hard to find a way to do as little harm as possible to classroom learning.

Loving Tonto Creek

The love of trout fishing remains a mostly benign and intermittently amusing form of mental illness. We know. Believe us. We know.

But you don’t have to be crazy to appreciate the benefits of the effort to make Tonto Creek a little Piscean piece of paradise.

Specifically, the Arizona Game and Fish Department in partnership with Tonto National Forest in the next three weeks will spend $175,000 to create about 75 new pools to gladden the cold-blooded little hearts of the stocked trout of summer. The money comes from hunting and fishing license fees and the Rim Country’s battered economy will reap the considerable benefits.

After almost three years of planning, the stream renovation should help offset the impact of floods spawned by devastating fires on the watershed. Those floods destroyed many of the deep pools that trout need to loaf, hunt and stay cool, forcing the trout to congregate in a handful of pools. The renovations will create many new pools along a heavily used five-mile stretch of the creek, allowing both the fish and the fishermen to spread out.

Next, Game and Fish and the Forest Service hope to make similar improvements to Haigler, Christopher and Canyon creeks. Down the road, we hope the East Verde River will get similar attention, now that the Salt River Project plans to run Blue Ridge water down the stream.

The stream renovations will boost Rim Country’s bragging rights as the state’s fishing epicenter, just 90 minutes from the sun-seared, stream-starved residents of the nation’s fifth largest city.

Rim Country’s economy remains critically dependent on offering families affordable access to outdoor activities. A 2001 study estimates hunters and fishermen support 769 full-time jobs in Gila County and pump about $39 million into the local economy.

So we’re grateful to Game and Fish and the Forest Service for sustaining the economy by maintaining the creek — even if it does feed our own, hopeful addiction to the plop of a lure in the still waters of a fishing hole.

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