School Board Unsure What To Do With Frontier

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The Payson School Board this week grappled inconclusively with the future — including alarming enrollment trends and bewildering options as to what to do with an empty elementary school.

From the audience, it looked like mud wrestling a two-headed, three-legged blind guy: Messy and confusing.

In the end, the board seemed resigned to paying the $30,000 to $50,000 annual cost of mothballing Frontier Elementary School while the district tries to read the tea leaves of recent enrollment trends.

“Our next step is to come up with a five-year game plan,” said board chairman Barbara

Underwood. “We just have so many options, we have to know what they are.”

Board member Kim Pound said “the people the school belongs to need to know what’s going on.”

Superintendent Casey O’Brien said for the moment the district has no clear idea when or whether the district might need to reopen Frontier Elementary School, which the board voted to close earlier this year.

The dilemma stems from the change in the district’s fortunes that has taken place in the past decade as years of steady enrollment increases gave way to accelerating declines.

The district’s enrollment peaked 10 years ago at 2,700, said Bobette Sylvester, the district’s budget director. However, enrollment has fallen by 350 or so

since then to 2,351. The loss of more than 100 students this year cut state support to the district by more than $400,000.

“That’s a considerable loss of students,” she told the board. “The loss had been running at less than 1 percent per year, but this year we lost nearly 5 percent. What we don’t know is where Payson is going in the future.”

The district built the school for $3.6 million in 1997 on a $190,000, 13-acre parcel. The district sold five acres of the original 13 to Hospice in 1997 for $180,000.

On the other hand, the district could also sell Frontier and use the money to expand one or more of the existing school sites to accommodate future growth.

Certainly, the town of Payson expects to grow — perhaps substantially. Currently, Payson has about 16,000 residents. But the town’s General Plan envisions an eventual population of closer to 38,000 at build-out. Some boosters maintain the town could resume rapid growth if plans to build a university campus and various support businesses comes to fruition this year.

Before the recession hit, builders were adding 200-plus houses annually to the town’s housing stock. But in the past three years, builders have averaged more like 10 to 30 new houses per year — mostly infill on vacant lots.

The shift from a population boom to bust hit young families in town especially hard — perhaps accelerating the town’s reliance on retirees. The decline in enrollment in the school district in the past two years has proven much sharper than the overall decline in population. Moreover, the sharp rise in students who qualify for free and reduced school lunches and the testimony of local social service agencies suggests that young, working families have been especially hard hit by the recession. Some evidence suggests that many families with children in school have simply given up and moved away as the downturn in construction has lingered.

That local shift from young, working families to retirees compounds the frustrating growth patterns that have hobbled many rural counties in the state. Between 2000 and 2010, Arizona’s population grew by 29 percent — more than three times faster than the nation’s 9 percent jump. However, most of the growth took place in the Valley and Tucson. Gila County’s population grew by less than 2 percent.

Between 2004 and 2009, the Payson school district’s enrollment bobbed up and down, but in the end dropped by 1.2 percent. That included a 3 percent drop at the high school, a 1.2 percent drop at the middle school and one-tenth of a percent drop in the elementary school.

Those modest declines were followed by a 1.1 percent in 2009-10 and a stunning 5 percent loss in 2010-11.

Projections for the next eight years based on current enrollments and projected growth in the community offer mixed results.

The district’s projections anticipate the annual loss of half a percent of the district’s students — about 12 to 24 students annually.

On the other hand, projections made by the state School Facilities Board suggest that the district will grow by half a percent per year in fiscal years 2011 through 2014 and then accelerate to gains of about 1 percent annually from 2014 to 2018.

Sylvester said the most likely projections envision an enrollment growth of about 8 percent in the next 12 years. That would add about 200 students — far fewer than it would take to fill a reopened Frontier.

None of those projections take into account the possible impact of building a college campus in town, which would likely provide jobs for several hundred new residents. The college plan also envisions a research park, a convention hotel and other businesses, which could attract hundreds of additional families with children.

So with future growth projections so uncertain, the school board flounders in a swamp of possibilities.

None of the board members seemed eager to sell Frontier, with its 40,000 square feet of interior space.

The board spent considerable time discussing the complexities of such a sale. Because the district is exempt from town zoning laws, any sale would return the zoning to medium density residential — which could include mobile home parks.

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