School Board Struggles To Make Tough Choices

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The Payson school board spent most of Saturday wrestling with its demons. Specifically, the five board members considered how the district could continue to help students learn while coping with state-inflicted budget cuts.

On the positive side: The board seems ready to improve programs for the district’s brightest, most creative students.

Board members sounded receptive to suggestions made by the 100-member Payson Association for Advanced Learners. Those parents want the district to test all students to see if they meet the guidelines for gifted and talented programs. Right now, the district only tests individual students at the suggestion of parents and teachers.

Unfortunately, in other key areas the board may have to retreat from important — but now seemingly unattainable goals.

One involves the district’s vital vocational education program. Because the state Legislature cut off funding for freshmen, the board may abandon its goal of increasing enrollment in vocational programs.

A second involves the abandonment of a goal that would have increased the number of students in foreign language classes. Budget cuts and the state mandated need to add math, science and social studies classes to the curriculum have crowded out the foreign language program. Currently, the single Spanish teacher can barely provide enough classes for the language classes required of students who hope to attend one of the state universities.

But the board tackled the tough choices with intelligence and energy — making the best of an awful situation.

Only a masochist would want to serve on the school board right now — with school closures, layoffs and the desperate effort to protect innovative programs dominating every board session.

Still, the emergence of a generous and supportive parents group and the board’s willingness to move forward where possible should give district parents heart — despite the drumbeat of bad news.

Redistricting: Political sham?

Advocates for fair county and college district lines got a dose of bad news at last week’s open forum. Gila County elections officials used the meeting to lay the groundwork for a redistricting that leaves north county voters disenfranchised, although the region now has most of the voters and the great majority of the assessed value.

County officials said their hands are tied: The federal Department of Justice won’t accept district lines that decrease the percentage of minority voters in any of the three supervisorial districts or the five Gila Community College districts. Moreover, the county can’t draw district lines that would result in supervisors Shirley Dawson or Mike Pastor living in the same district — although they live a couple of blocks apart in Globe now.

Our response? Hooey (that’s the cleaned-up version.)

Gila County’s redistricting process this time around must take care to safeguard the interests of the voting rights of the residents of the San Carlos and Tonto Apache reservations — and the substantial Hispanic populations of Globe and other south county towns.

However, the district lines must also respect the constitutional rights of every voter to have an equal vote by living in districts of equal population.

The north county deserves fair representation. For years district lines have tilted to the south and have slighted the legitimate interests of north county voters, who pay the majority of the county’s taxes, but receive far fewer services.

The disparity is especially egregious in the Gila Community College District, where the dictatorial chairman Bob Ashford’s Globe-based district has 30 percent fewer residents than the largest district, which lies entirely in north county.

County officials spent most of their time at a public forum trying to convince the skeptical north county audience that their hands are tied: They can’t change the percentage of minority voters in any of the districts and still win Department of Justice approval.

We believe that is a misreading of the law and of the county’s own redistricting history. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like an excuse to adhere to the political status quo — even if it disenfranchises north county residents.

We hope that the county will dig deeper and let the redistricting committee consider all the alternatives — instead of turning the process into a political sham.

We also hope that the board of supervisors, which must ultimately make the decision on district lines, will act in the interests of the whole county — instead of their own, personal political interests.

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