The Payson school district has agreed to return $210,000 to the Arizona Department of Education for a program that district officials say helped students but that state officials didn’t count as a class.
Auditors from the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) decided Payson schools state money spent on an innovative class that helped children who fell behind in school didn’t qualify as a class under state rules.
“This began a little over a year ago when auditors from the ADE came to look at attendance issues,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
In May of 2011, state auditors swooped into Payson to investigate potential misuse of attendance funds, since the state pays the district a certain amount for each day a student spends in class. The auditors red-flagged the Rim Country Middle School’s (RCMS) Achieve Hour, concluding the class did not fit the state’s definition of classroom instruction, said O’Brien.
Based on classroom research, the Achieve Hour gave students structured time to do homework, ask teachers questions outside of class, and practice reading.
“They (ADE) felt this was not a valuable use of instruction time,” said O’Brien.
“It really is a crock,” said school board president Barbara Underwood, “I had granddaughters in it (Achieve). The kids felt it was a good class.”
At first, O’Brien thought the issue would go away as other investigations have dissolved when he sent documentation to prove the program worked.
“A lot of times, these things are easy to rectify,” said O’Brien. “What was shocking was ... the formal complaint in January.”
After sending reams of research and data to ADE and waiting for months, the auditors sent their decision to the Payson Unified School District (PUSD): a bill for $420,000.
O’Brien and the district immediately filed an appeal, which turned into a mediation process, said O’Brien.
PUSD repeatedly sent in more research and ADE would propose small reductions in the bill. Both sides scheduled repeated meetings with legal counsel.
“It became a matter of how can you not support accelerated reading?” said O’Brien.
In the end, the Department of Education decided to halve the bill, agreeing to accept $210,000.
In a May 14 executive meeting with legal counsel, the school board decided to accept the settlement. The only other alternative would have been to take the matter to court.
“At some point, it’s too big of a gamble to play,” said Underwood.
“At the end of the day, it’s a legal argument. The judge could say, (the Arizona Department of Education) has the legal right to decide these issues,” he said.
PUSD will have two years to pay off the balance.
As soon as the decision came down in January, the business manager, Kathie Manning, and O’Brien began preparing the budget for the hit.
“We made budget cuts based on the worst-case scenario,” said Manning.
In the 2012-13 budget, the district has reduced its projected income by $105,000 in preparation to reimburse ADE.
Manning has already labored to carry over as many funds as possible to cover the loss of forest fees from the federal government, sick day payouts, unforeseen repairs not covered by insurance and the settlement.
O’Brien did say the district will not have to pay legal fees. Insurance covered those costs.
RCMS disbanded the achieve class in 2011. Middle school students now have six periods of full-time instruction. If they wish to have additional help from their teacher, students have to find time before school, during lunch, or after school, said O’Brien.
Due to a high poverty rate, many Payson school children lack adequate space to do homework. The 25 percent of students who are classified as homeless often do not know if they will have a space to do homework. Because many financially strapped families have parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, parents often don’t have time to work with students on their homework at home.
Both the middle and high schools have started homework programs as discipline for those students who failed to do homework, but school officials have found students now voluntarily attending.
Payson High School principal Anna Van Zile has reported students appreciate the consistent, quiet space, complete with computers connected to the Internet and access and adults to answer questions.
O’Brien said on paper the settlement came down to dollars, but the true issues are deeper.
“To me this decision flies in the face of local control,” said O’Brien, “I think the ADE is overreaching when auditors are making a decision on classroom instruction time strictly on paper.”