Schools Start Teacher Cuts

Layoff notices go out as district grapples with $650,000 shortfall and another year of state cuts

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Payson Schools’ shrinking budget hit painfully home this weekend as the district sent out teacher layoff notices.

The board will confirm the layoffs and other budget cuts at a special meeting on Wednesday, April 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the district board meeting room.

“After Wednesday’s meeting, we will have all of the budget cuts we need,” said superintendent Casey O’Brien.

O’Brien’s budget assumes the Republican Legislature will refuse to accept Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Even Brewer’s budget included about $82 million fresh cuts for K-12 schools, the third year of cutbacks.

The Legislature wants additional, unspecified cuts of about $500 million, with the governor and legislative leaders remaining in a deadlock that set in back in February.

Currently, the governor has refused to sign any more bills until the Legislature votes to approve her budget — or submits a budget of its own.

The state has a projected surplus and economists dismiss the possibility of a renewed recession. However, the Legislature’s Finance Advisory Committee last week lowered its projection for state revenue growth in the fiscal year 2013 from 5 percent to about 3.4 percent. Overall, projections suggest the state’s economy will grow by 6 or 7 percent.

However, the lowered revenue projections and the expiration of a $1 billion temporary state sales tax increase in May of 2013 prompted legislative leaders to reiterate their demand for a budget that includes a $1.1 billion surplus. The governor has asked the Legislature to release $500 million collected from a one-cent sales tax voters approved mostly for education.

O’Brien’s budget and the resulting layoffs assume that the Legislature will win the argument with Brewer, forcing a third year of big budget cuts locally.

Teachers spent the weekend talking about the layoffs, which so far include at least two Rim Country Middle School (RCMS) and two Payson High School (PHS) teachers. Reportedly, the district has also eliminated the home economics program at the middle school.

School officials will not confirm details.

“Legally, we can’t confirm anything until Tuesday after the board agenda comes out at 5:30,” said O’Brien. The school board is responsible for all hiring and firing within the school district.

No further staff riffs will occur after Wednesday’s meeting said O’Brien. The district’s teacher contracts require early notice of possible layoffs, so teachers have time to look for jobs in other districts.

Originally, the district had announced it would hold off on firing any staff until April 30 in order to wait for further retirements, but that date has been pushed up.

“Originally that (later date) was to allow us to make enough time,” said O’Brien. However, a committee that included the principals from each school, O’Brien and director of special services Barbara Fitzgerald, moved ahead with the layoffs. The committee based its decisions on enrollment in certain programs plus a “ruberic.” State law bars layoffs based on seniority. O’Brien said the ruberic was intended to minimize the impact of specific layoffs on students.

“This special meeting is a courtesy that allows them to get a jump on finding other employment,” said O’Brien.

Staff salary and benefits represent 86 percent of the overall school budget, said O’Brien. The board will offer contracts to remaining teachers and staff by May 14.

O’Brien said the district’s deficit springs from the loss of about 100 students, the loss of federal stimulus funding intended to help districts with a lot of non-tax-earning federal land and another year of state reductions.

Two years ago, the district laid off teachers and administrators, with administration taking the bulk of the cuts. Last year, the reductions focused almost entirely on teachers, which drove a big increase in elementary class sizes. This year, the school board directed O’Brien to shield the elementary schools from additional cutbacks as much as possible.

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