Board Grapples With Priorities

Proposed budget system uses funds in areas to boost student achievement

Payson Unified School District Office

Payson Unified School District Office Photo by Andy Towle. |

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An intent Payson School Board struggled most of Saturday to understand the far-reaching implications of Superintendent Ron Hitchcock’s priority-based approach to the district’s budget.

Hitchcock said the new approach starts with the board-adopted priority list, then allocates money based on whether a program will advance those priorities — starting with student achievement.

For instance, he said, lots of the research shows that all-day kindergarten will do more to improve test scores for the K-2 Payson Elementary School than anything else. Therefore, restoring the all-day kindergarten eliminated by the Legislature two years ago ought to rank as a top priority when it comes time for the district to adopt a budget.

“What drives all of the districts in Arizona should be student achievement,” said Hitchcock.

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PUSD Superintendent Ron Hitchcock

Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget would for the first time link an ever-increasing share of the district’s funding to student test scores. Additional mandates will require districts to link teacher pay and promotions to test scores.

Hitchcock said in the past, the district started by estimating how much money it will get from property taxes, bond issues and the state — then decided what to add or cut. Instead, the district should start by prioritizing programs based on how they’ll affect student achievement then use that list to allocate funding.

“We need more resources to implement research-based best practices,” he said, like all-day kindergarten. “Research shows that full-day kindergarten will move the needle on student achievement. It does not guarantee a student will be successful by the 12th grade, but it will make a difference for student achievement at Payson Elementary School.”

But the discussion also illustrated the old adage — “the devil’s in the details,” as Hitchcock presented a long-term staffing plan based on his effort to figure out how many teachers, administrators, classified staff and specialist the district needs, given its particular problems and dwindling enrollment.

The formula starts by deciding on average class sizes based on research, he said.

Hitchcock then said the “sweet spot” for student achievement based on research includes average class sizes of 20 for grades K-2, 24 for grades 3-5, 22 for grades 6-8 and 21 for grades 9-12. The district currently has significantly larger class sizes at almost every level.

He also calculated how many extra teachers and specialists each school would need for assorted programs, like special education, gifted programs, the arts, advanced placement classes, reading specialists and others.

Finally, he included the need for counselors at the high school and middle school, a volunteer coordinator to take advantage of the skills of parents at each school site and a student achievement specialist at each school site, charged with finding ways to boost test scores.

He then included all of those calculations in an estimate as to how many teachers and other staff each of the district’s five school sites would need in 2013-14.

The calculation assumed a student to full-time staff ratio of 11.4 students per staff members at Payson Elementary School, 13 to 1 at Julia Randall Elementary, 12.7 to 1 and Rim Country Middle School, 12.1 to 1 at Payson High School and 10.9 to 1 at Payson Center for Success, the small, alternative high school.

Run that all together and it works out to 33 fewer full-time positions than at present, based on a variety of assumptions — including continued enrollment decline. The charts generated a wave of confusion around the table, although Hitchcock stressed the number represented a goal over time, based on things like full-day kindergarten shown to improve achievement. “I would think of the staffing level as a trajectory or a glide path where staffing goes up or down in direct proportion to student enrollment,” said Hitchcock.

Board member Rory Huff studied the calculations and wondered why the chart showed that the central office staffing would rise by one to 64 full-time equivalents — with the addition of a computer specialist. By contrast, staffing at the school sites would eventually drop by about 33 — perhaps 14 percent.

Hitchcock explained that the formula for the staffing at the school site depends on enrollment, which is declining. But the formulas for administration and transportation and other central office functions don’t necessarily directly reflect enrollment changes.

“We’ve got more people employed now” than the formula calls for, said board president Barbara Underwood. “But once someone leaves, we’re going to re-evaluate the position and maybe move someone?”

“All we’re saying,” said board member James Quinlan, “is we can do some of it through attrition.”

“I did not say that we’re going to replace 30 people next year,” said Hitchcock. “Clearly, our priority is teachers.”

“But if we have 30 excess people ...” began board member Shirley Dye.

“That’s not what I said,” said Hitchcock gently. “I am already projecting we’re going to lose 60 more students,” dropping enrollment to a 2,366, said Hitchcock. “Now the traditional way of budgeting would be to say — ‘Oh, my. We’re going to lose $200,000. What are we going to cut? I’m saying, stop, set your priorities. Actually, there are more teachers in this prototype than we have there now. If that’s your No. 1 priority, so then what are you going to cut from all the other things? This is a different way of budgeting, instead of just spending the money — you fund a priority.”

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