We fear the Payson School Board is on the brink of a big mistake. The board has voted to sell Frontier Elementary School to whoever’s interested, having apparently lost faith in the future of the community it serves.
Alas, we understand the logic — up to a point.
The Arizona School Facilities Board offered up a formula that predicts years of continued enrollment declines for the 2,300-student district. If you believe that formula, even if the economy eventually turns and the region resumes growth, it will take a least five years to even recover the enrollment the Payson Unified School District had when the board mothballed Frontier, which was then its top-performing school.
Granted, finally signing a deal with Arizona State University or some other institution could jump-start growth and confound those projections. But after waiting anxiously for a signed deal for years now, the school board decided that prospects for a university have grown too hypothetical to consider it in its planning process.
So the board accepted Superintendent Ron Hitchcock’s advice and voted to move forward with the sale. In so doing, the board rejected a host of interesting ideas as to how the district could use the school site to benefit the community while waiting for the economy to shift — or the university project to advance.
We don’t understand the rush to sell the school, given the vast uncertainties facing the district.
First, we remain confident that after all the years of hard work and huge expense, the Rim Country Educational Alliance in the next few months will sign a deal with Arizona State University. We believe that such an agreement will indeed jump-start the local housing market — and draw many new businesses to the area.
The district should most certainly wait at least one more year before making such a momentous decision.
Second, the district should not sell Frontier until it has a plan to cope with growth when it returns.
Payson’s population now stands at maybe 16,000. The general plan envisions a build-out population of 38,000. The district will without doubt need to increase its capacity eventually. When that happens, will it need a school site near where Frontier stands right now? Will the district add a school site — or expand the existing campuses? Will the district pay attention to the research on student achievement and switch to a K-8 system? If so, how many campuses will it need?
We would feel much more confident of the need to sell Frontier if the district first prepared a sensible plan for dealing with growth when it comes.
Third, every school district in the state now lives at the mercy of the state school facilities board, which will control whether the district gets approval to ever build a new school site. Ever since the courts shifted responsibility for school facilities to the state, the Legislature has balked at providing enough money to even maintain existing facilities — much less accommodate growth. If Payson gives up Frontier, we may never get the money we need to grow again.
Fourth, many of the ideas for lease of the facility would have provided great value to the taxpayers who provided the money to build the school in the first place. Several board members said they want to sell the site to save the taxpayers’ money. But those same taxpayers would benefit from many of the proposals for lease of the facility — and will also pay the potentially much higher cost of eventually buying land and building a new school once enrollment rises in the future. The community paid for those schools — so the district must serve the community.
So for all those reasons, we hope the school board will not rush into a sale that will in the long run serve neither students nor taxpayers.