Brushing aside student and parent protests, the school board unanimously voted to lay off six teachers at its meeting Wednesday night.
The teachers laid off include Sharon Stevenson from Payson Elementary School (PES), Donna Goble and Wanda Utz from Rim Country Middle School (RCMS), and Nora Lubitz, Ingrid Schon and Ron Silverman from Payson High School (PHS).
Two other teachers resigned, including Jennifer Laird and Sylvia Sandoval, the wife of former Payson High School principal, Roy Sandoval, who was himself laid off two years ago.
Lou Crabtree, the lone Spanish teacher for PHS, went from full-time to half-time, marking another contraction of the district’s vanishing language program.
The district also all but eliminated its home economics program.
Board member Barbara Shepherd observed that without a large number of recent teacher resignations, the district would have had to lay off a total of 12 teachers.
The 2,400-student district has about 140 teachers, so the loss of 12 represents a roughly 9 percent decline — more than twice the percentage enrollment drop.
Unlike in past years, the teachers accounted for all of the layoffs, although teachers comprise only about half of the district’s employees.
The 15 students who attended the meeting sat in solidarity while one of their own pleaded with the board not to lay off history teacher Silverman. Administrators said that the high failure rate and high dropout rate from his demanding classes played a factor in his layoff.
“We want to lodge our opinion and protest the riffing of Mr. Ron Silverman,” said Tyler McMinimy, a senior set to graduate this year, “contrary to possible beliefs of him not being an adequate teacher ... he can teach and is one of the best teachers we’ve had.”
The students offering support for Silverman accounted for about half of the audience in a dispiriting budget meeting that represented the third year of layoffs. Most of the students who attended were seniors concerned about the future of their fellow underclassmen.
The district faces a projected $650,000 deficit in its $12 million operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The deficit stems from the loss of 100 students, state budget cuts and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal stimulus money for rural districts with a lot of federal land.
Alan Ammon, a parent of a student who had Silverman while at PHS, spoke of the inspiration Silverman instilled in students to work hard and think.
“The preparation and challenge he gave the kids will prepare them for college,” said Ammon, but “as I heard of his class sizes diminishing and his lack of politics — that made the riffing process easier. I just hope we don’t live to regret this decision.”
Laurel Wala, a parent and president of the parent-teacher organization Payson Association for Advanced Learners (PAAL), lodged a protest against reducing the hours of Crabtree, the Spanish teacher.
“I do want to register my disappointment and discouragement ... at the decision to reduce our district’s only foreign language teacher to a half-time position,” she said.
Wala went on to explain that any university requires at least two credits and some four. At the time her son went through freshman orientation, he was told to not apply for a Spanish class because spaces were reserved for upperclassmen.
“In other words, Spanish classes are always full,” said Wala. “Our schools should at the very least offer those courses necessary to give our children the opportunity to go to college.”
Salaries and benefits make up 87 percent of the school budget. After closing Frontier Elementary, firing principals, teachers and secretaries for the last two years, administration turned to teachers again this year to balance the budget.
The constant message administration gave for the cuts was: “It’s all about the numbers.”
The committee that decided on the layoffs included principals from each school, Superintendent Casey O’Brien and Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald. The committee considered the class enrollment numbers and applied a ruberic of questions to each teacher before making their recommendations to the school board.
“We’ve gone through riffing before,” said school board member Kim Pound. “Have we looked at every avenue?”
O’Brien responded that yes, the district had looked over every alternative. The administration and support staff had already taken a big hit and the district could not afford to make any more cuts in those two areas. Administrators accounted for perhaps a third of the layoffs two years ago, but escaped winnowing last year. Non-teaching support staff accounted for about half the layoffs last year, but escaped any reductions this year.
“The accountability required by the state and federal governments necessitates a minimum of support staff,” said O’Brien. If the district cannot file adequate reports, it loses money, he said.
The state Legislature has cut its education budget for three years in a row. This year, Gov. Jan Brewer proposed an additional $82 million in cuts for K-12 schools. However, the Republican governor is locked in a standoff with the Republican Legislature, which wants to cut an additional $500 million to boost the state’s projected budget to about $1.1 billion. If the Legislature prevails, K-12 schools will almost certainly face additional cuts.
Shepherd lamented the Legislature’s stance when she called Payson’s state representatives. However, she said the lawmakers mostly crowed about balancing the budget.
“I spoke with two state legislators,” said Shepherd, “They were proud of the cuts they made, but I argued with them that they’re cutting teachers. It’s not our fault the state is cutting funds.”
She praised the students for coming out in support of Silverman, but said the decisions were tough for the board.
When board president Barbara Underwood called for a motion to riff the teachers and reduce Crabtree’s hours of instruction, a pregnant pause ensued as board members’ eyes darted from one to the other. Finally, board member Matt Van Camp made the motion. As the motion sat on the table, again board members looked to one another before Pound seconded the motion.
The riffs and reduction passed without one nay vote.
As soon as the board cast its vote, the students left the meeting, leaving most of the seats empty.