The fallout from school budget cuts continues.
Payson school administrators continue to shuffle the deck to save money by eliminating and restructuring positions causing staff resignations and loss of student services.
“Our personnel actions are about trying to preserve as many programs as possible and protect class sizes for our elementary schools,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
At Payson High School (PHS), incoming principal Anna Van Zile has suggested restructuring the position of the vice principal position she has held for the last two years to possibly save money.
“Anna Van Zile has been researching cost-cutting measures,” said O’Brien, “but this will be tough to do for more than a year.”
O’Brien said the new position is currently being drafted for the school board to consider both the position and its job description. The new position could combine some of the vice principal disciplinary responsibilities with the athletic director and administrative assistant duties. The governing board has a special meeting scheduled for next week to decide how to proceed with this idea.
O’Brien said this new PHS position might not require any administrative certification, but it is unclear how it will all unfold.
“It depends on the job description that Mrs. Van Zile presents to the board,” said O’Brien.
Moving the athletic director (AD) responsibilities to this position will change the structure at Payson Center for Success (PCS), since lead teacher Gary Fishel handled the AD responsibilities this year.
O’Brien said that the number of teachers at PCS will drop from four to three. PCS is a charter school that receives funding separate from the Payson Unified School District.
However, PCS does use PUSD administrative functions such as accounting.
At Rim Country Middle School (RCMS), administrators eliminated counselor Byron Quinlan’s position. The district offered him a job as a special education teacher, but he preferred to look for a counselor position elsewhere. He found a position at a small Montana school where his family will move this summer.
“I’m excited to go to a small town in Montana,” said Quinlan, “It has 200 kids in kindergarten through the 12th grade.”
The loss of the counselor position will hit RCMS students hard. Last year, Quinlan said he staved off more suicide threats, body cutting, bullying incidents and abuse cases than ever before.
He said his counseling office offered a safe haven for students in a difficult developmental transition time to come and talk without fear of judgment or reprisal from a teacher or administrator.
“I think it’s going to open their eyes when I leave,” said Quinlan, “There’s a lot taken off the principal’s plate.”
Quinlan grew up in Payson. Unlike most local children who leave for lack of opportunity, he tried to remain in town and contribute. His wife coordinates many of the matches between adults and children with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“She’s gotten a lot of recognition from Phoenix for her work with youth in this community,” said Quinlan.
His extended family will remain in town, however. His father taught for 20 years and his mother continues to work as a science teacher at the middle school. His sister-in-law works as an aide in special education.
“We regret making each and every cut,” said O’Brien.
He expressed his anger that state legislators have forced the Payson schools to cut programs to balance a budget clearly not sufficient to cover costs.
Some teachers have offered their own ideas to save money for the district.
Culinary arts instructor Devon Wells is looking into early retirement to help the school district. If she qualifies, said Vice Principal Anna Van Zile, the district may re-hire her at an entry-level instructor’s pay and her benefits would be covered by the state teachers retirement system.
At the state level, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) will spend this summer upgrading the current student attendance management system and preparing for a slew of new data required to join the “Race to the Top.”
The ADE will now require school districts to create a master schedule for every student, for every course and grade level including kindergarten, said O’Brien.
It is hoped this master schedule will allow parents, teachers and administrators to monitor academic progress. But the Legislature expects schools to do this without additional funds, said O’Brien.
“It creates a new level of state bureaucracy and will take our support staff many hours to create and maintain,” he said.
For the past three years, the state Legislature has not let up on cuts to education. The current budget holds per student spending at 25 percent below the national average.
Gov. Brewer spent weeks battling the Legislature to attempt to bring more money to school districts. Her bid to increase money for items such as textbooks and classroom technology was slashed by legislators from $200 million to $15 million. The Payson school district has all but eliminated curriculum growth and evaluation, cutting the director of curriculum position three years ago, said O’Brien.
Yet the community does what it can. Generous Credit for Kids dollars prop up music, athletic and other extracurricular activities. A bond passed before the Legislature imposed a rate cap helps the district to upgrade its schools.
With hope still alive over a college coming to town, O’Brien hopes for the best for Payson.
“I’m still bullish about Payson,” said O’Brien.