Faced with hard choices, the Payson school board wants to focus on the early elementary school years and core academic courses.
That represents a sharp shift from last year, when the board’s budget cuts forced an increase in average class sizes in grades K-5 and the closure of the district’s top-performing elementary school.
However, it does reflect the impact of new state-mandated report cards that will place heavy emphasis on whether the district can ensure that all its third-graders can read fluently.
Outgoing Superintendent Casey O’Brien provoked the discussion of priorities during Monday’s board meeting by asking for guidance in preparing what looks like another tight budget, full of no-win choices.
“What I want are your priorities for a period that will involve continued austerity,” said O’Brien, sounding a distinctly more somber note about the district’s budget prospects than he did just two weeks ago.
At that time, he said Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in June mostly protected existing funding for K-12 schools — after two years of budget cuts. However, on Monday he said the state Legislature appears likely to balk at Brewer’s plan to spend a projected $671 million surplus — with much of the money going to schools battered by the past two state budgets.
Predictions of a quick state budget session have given way to signs of impending gridlock that have already prompted Brewer to cancel her planned June vacation, said O’Brien.
“That’s not a good sign — and this is her party, but they seem to be at odds,” said O’Brien.
One legislative budget bill has proposed freezing state spending at 2006 levels, which could mean additional cuts for K-12 education. Another proposal would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for any increase in spending.
“It’s all conjecture at this point,” said O’Brien. “I hate to say this, but you’ve all been on the train and we’ve all bought the ticket. The goal is to position the district so growth can occur in the future and the quality can be sustained.”
The district’s financial woes are complicated by a continued drop in enrollment, down 61 students this year. The district gets roughly $3,500 in state funding for each student. The enrollment decline this fall will translate into a $240,000 reduction in funding come June, regardless of what other cuts the state imposes.
“We’re not going to see an increase in funding, so we’re in a deficit situation. All indications are that the governor’s budget is getting a lot of pushback,” said O’Brien.
“I can’t say anyone is going to come to our rescue. We’re on our own. We’re shrinking and we have to be in a defensive mode.”
The board members responded to the glum assessment by saying that their top priority remains giving elementary school students the skills they need to succeed in the upper grades.
Ironically, the district closed last year’s million-dollar deficit by shuttering Frontier and increasing elementary school class sizes from 20-23 to more like 26-30 per class.
Board President Barbara Underwood said, “I’d really like to see us focus on K-3. We need to give them a solid foundation rather than constantly doing remedial work.”
She said she’d like to see the return of all-day kindergarten, “but if we brought that back, I know something would have to give.”
Two years ago, the Legislature eliminated all-day kindergarten as a budget saving measure. Studies show that quality, all-day kindergarten can significantly boost reading scores in the early elementary school years, especially for the kids from low-income homes who often have trouble reading fluently by third grade. About 70 percent of the district’s students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced school lunches.
Recently imposed state reforms will force school districts to hold back third-graders who can’t read well enough to move on to the next grade. Current test scores suggest that perhaps a third of the district’s third-graders might not meet the new standard.
Board member Kim Pound objected to the hasty discussion of board priorities. “This is important stuff, not something we can hammer out in an hour.”
Board member Matt Van Camp said, “My priority is K-5. We’ll save tons of money in the upper grades if we do that right.”
Board member Rory Huff said “We’re hamstringing our elementary schools, we’re really handicapping our teachers” by not providing enough resources at the elementary school level. “If the students are behind in K-5, they’ll never catch up.”
He said the district should protect its core academic classes, even if that means limiting electives. “Maybe some of these other courses are going to have to fall by the wayside.”
Van Camp said increased state requirements for core science, math and social studies classes have already limited the ability of students to take electives. “They’re pushing those electives out anyway,” he said.
O’Brien said the district could protect electives by extending the school day and that the state had provided some funding to do that. However, “they provide only half of the money you need.”
Board member Pound said the district must concentrate on core academic courses. “If you protect the core curriculum, you can’t go wrong. You need to give students an opportunity to be successful.”