Superintendent Ron Hitchcock has heard the rumor mill whispering that the school district has always had plans for the now empty Frontier Elementary School — perhaps stoked by a November ballot measure that will give the district permission from the voters to sell the land if necessary.
He would like to put those rumors to rest at the Tuesday, Oct. 9 school board meeting.
“The district does not have plans on who would entertain the sale, lease or exchange of property for the former Frontier Elementary School site,” he said.
On the contrary, until voters vote whether to allow the district to disentangle itself from the property, the district must continue to take responsibility, said the superintendent.
That means keeping the electricity on for the heaters so pipes do not burst and running the sprinklers so the grass does not die creating an eyesore.
In addition, the district opens the Frontier gates each day so neighborhood kids can use the playground and fields, said Hitchcock.
Other than that, PUSD has no one interested in using the property.
The voters will have the chance to untie the district’s hands when they vote on a referendum to allow PUSD to sell the property, lease it or exchange it for another piece of land.
“My advice to the board on this issue would be for the board to request proposals (on what to do with Frontier), but they cannot do that until voters approve the referendum,” said Hitchcock.
District officials said voter approval of the referendum would give them flexibility to maximize use of the property, which could include eventually reopening it if the district’s enrollment stabilizes and then starts to grow again.
Hitchcock said he hopes voters will allow the district to eventually sell the property, since all indicators show enrollment will decline for the next 10 years.
In fact, according to current enrollment numbers, class sizes will steadily decline as enrollment drops. For the past four years, PUSD has lost an average of 100 students per year.
These numbers suggest enrollment will continue to dwindle.
“In the absence of population growth the likelihood of us needing to re-open (Frontier) is faint,” said Hitchcock.
On the other hand, Payson’s master plan envisions an eventual population of about 38,000 — more than double the current population. Town planners hope that the approval of a deal with Arizona State University to build a university campus here will jump-start renewed growth.
The board on Tuesday will also decide whether to hire a consultant to help the district save money by working on a complex algorithm the federal government requires to win funding for district phone, bandwidth, and data streaming costs.
Hitchcock said the grant would repay the cost of the consultant, but unless the district invests in the consultant now, it may not qualify for federal help.
The board will consider hiring an additional secretary to focus on filling out forms required by various state and federal grants, said Hitchcock.
“PUSD has come to rely heavily on grants and federal title programs to fund our programs and classroom staff,” said Hitchcock.
As the state Legislature continues to defund schools, grants and other state and federal programs have filled the gaps, but they come at a cost, said Hitchcock.
The superintendent plans on using over a million dollars from those funding sources to fund classrooms, but that means filling out piles of paperwork.
“If we don’t (hire a secretary) immediately, and simply wait for the audit process to be finished, I fear we will be liable not only for incorrect expenditures in this budget cycle, but in cycles past as well,” said Hitchcock.
The board will also renew its debate about whether to charge certain organizations a special rate when they use school facilities. For instance, groups like Club Rim volleyball offer a service to the students but charges a fee, carries its own insurance and also served children outside the district. The fee covers replacement costs for equipment used.
Hitchcock said he recommends the board not create the added category of fees.
“If an organization such as Club Rim says, ‘We’re going to do this in conjunction with a high school sports team,’ then they can move into Category I,” said Hitchcock, which waives fees for non-profit organizations that serve PUSD children.
However, if organizations such as Club Rim team up with a school group or team they would also enjoy a fee waiver.
Although some organizations already do this, they also donate equipment such as lights for the football field or new nets for the volleyball courts, said Hitchcock.