For the first time in six years, enrollment jumped in the Payson Unified School District. Abruptly, the school board turned from selling schools to worrying about overcrowding.
So in an effort to catch its breath, the board on Aug. 12 unanimously overrode the administration and refused to add classrooms to Payson Elementary School (PES).
Superintendent Ron Hitchcock said the surprising enrollment jump is concentrated in kindergarten and first grade classes. That means it may stem from the district’s decision to offer all-day kindergarten as much as from an underlying rise in the school-age population.
“I think it’s clear that there was pent up demand for free, full-day kindergarten, since we had about 140 students last year in kindergarten under the old model and now have over 200 students in first grade,” he wrote in an e-mail after the meeting, “Similarly, we had about 140 (kindergartners) last year, but this year with free, full-day kindergarten we have over 190.”
With the closure of Frontier Elementary, the district houses all kindergarten through second grade students at PES.
But PES has the least square footage of any school in the district.
Hitchcock said teachers are using closets and the library to house classrooms.
“Every spare bit of space is being used,” said Hitchcock.
Still, the board balked at spending the $1 million the district received for selling Frontier to add about four classrooms to PES as Hitchcock requested.
“After talking to community members, I think we need to see where we are as a school district,” said board member Rory Huff in the meeting. “We have (a budget) override vote coming and I feel it would be in our best interest to put this (PES expansion) on the back burner.”
The override Huff discussed allows the school district to maintain the current property tax rate, which allows the district to spend up to about 10 percent more than the state formula.
“Last time, we bought textbooks with the override money,” said Huff after the meeting.
The override lasts for seven years. Huff said in November of 2014, the override will be up for a vote again. He wants to make sure voters understand the board is being careful with taxpayer money and thinking about its options.
Huff said enrollment needs to stabilize before the district can assess its needs and start any major projects.
“We’re going to need to look at reconfiguring the schools and make sure we have everything,” said Huff. “In the past, things have been built without thinking.”
After the vote to delay the build out, Brenda Case, director of student achievement, seemed visibly upset.
In his report at the end of the meeting, Hitchcock suggested the board might have to consider moving a grade out of PES to another school.
“You have lost $2 million for the last six years, that’s $12 million,” said Hitchcock. “Your legs were taken out from under you — they defunded everything — capital, soft capital, etc. I do not know how to fund our priorities — whether it is student achievement or facilities ... we’re trying to attend to these issues, but what about when we need more space? ... can the middle school accommodate four grades rather than three grades? Can the high school accommodate another grade? If we’re going to back away, we need to have concrete discussion.”