Tax Override Vote Saved Payson School Programs

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Voter support last year for a budget override prevented an additional rise in class size, provided advanced courses for high school students and saved music, physical education and technology classes throughout the Payson Unified School District, the school board learned recently.

State law allows voters to boost their property taxes to augment school budgets by up to 10 percent, usually to cover the cost of certain programs. Local voters rejected a budget override in 2009, but then approved the district’s appeal for more money in 2010. Voters will decide again whether to extend the override in 2015.

The voter approval of the override boosted the district’s operations budget by about $1.2 million annually and runs until 2016.

The administration reported the override money has supported technology, physical education and music classes, and helped to provide extra assistance for students struggling with reading, writing or math.

“I’m very thankful for the override,” said Board President Barbara Underwood, “because we’re one of the few districts still able to have music and PE, so I’m just grateful to the community.”

Superintendent Casey O’Brien agreed. “If it weren’t for the override, we wouldn’t have music and technology programs,” he said.

The approval of the override came just in time to cushion the impact of big budget cuts, caused by declining enrollment and shrinking state support.

The district faced a nearly $1 million deficit in the current school year. The school board responded by closing Frontier Elementary School, cutting about two dozen positions and boosting average class sizes in the elementary schools by 3-5 students.

However, the district managed to protect key extra programs like music and drama, plus various high-end classes like a projectbased series of engineering classes and a range of advanced placement classes.

The override money played a key role in cushioning the blow of the state spending cuts in education, said O’Brien.

The override provides the district with a 10-percent increase in its operating budget, which worked out to an extra $1,272,436 last year and $1,217,549 this year. The amount provided by the override has declined with the district’s operating budget and its enrollment.

This year, the override money will provide $475,000 to reduce the number of teacher layoffs otherwise forced by state funding cuts, $58,000 to protect small, advanced classes at the high school level and $685,000 to protect music and physical education programs as well as pay stipends to coordinators at each campus to help students struggling to keep up in reading, writing and math.

Board members took pains to thank the voters for supporting the override in 2010, painfully aware that many homeowners are just receiving property tax bills that reflect a roughly 50-percent increase in the district’s property tax rate.

The big increase in the base rate for the school’s share of the property tax reflects a big rise in the share of the district’s budget that comes from local property taxes.

The Legislature boosted school property tax rates statewide by 20 percent to compensate for shrinking property values in the third year of the housing market collapse. Ironically, because Payson property values declined by only 10 percent last year, homeowners here actually suffered a much bigger hit than elsewhere in the state as a result of the Legislature’s adjustment in the formula.

However, almost half of the increase stemmed from inaccurate estimates of revenue and expenses by the school district, which left schools almost a million dollars short for the fiscal year that ended in June. As a result, the district had to draw on a line of credit and then increase the base tax rate enough this year to cover the bad projections.

Fortunately for the district, voters had already approved the extra taxes to cover the override back in 2010 as the region’s economy started to slide into the downturn that continues to plague the schools.

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