School District Shows Welcome Openness

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The Payson School Board has operated with a refreshing and much-needed openness since Superintendent Ron Hitchcock took over.

Maybe that’s not super efficient — but it’s the right thing to do if the school board wants to build public support for the tough decisions ahead.

The most recent sign of a new attitude toward public input came last week with the open-ended meeting on four different proposals to make use of the mothballed Frontier Elementary School site.

The most promising proposal at the moment would involve leasing the site to the Town of Payson to set up a regional training center for police and fire departments.

First and foremost, this plan puts the school site to use without barring a possible return to use as a school when growth resumes. It also would serve the community and deepen the district’s relationship with the town.

We remain confident in Payson’s future. The General Plan — currently undergoing revision — envisions a build-out population of 38,000. That would more than double the current population.

Those projections remain entirely realistic, given the plans to build a 6,000-student university here, with all the spinoff businesses that would entail. Moreover, Payson remains one of the few communities in Arizona that has assured a long-term water supply to realize those plans. That took generations of effort on the part of visionary community leaders. It remains the best guarantee of this town’s future.

Therefore, we urge the school district to not only move carefully in disposing of a school site — but to draw up plans soon to prepare for that probable future.

We hope that will include a reconsideration of the current structure — particularly the retention of the middle school model, which a great deal of research has called into question. The school board and administration should seize the future, instead of reacting piecemeal to the crisis of the moment — which includes the current slow, alarming enrollment decline. Such improvised decision making leads to things like shutting down the most successful school in the district — and significantly raising elementary school class sizes despite ample evidence suggesting that will reduce student achievement.

The school board took many of those actions under an administration that promoted far less open communication with the community on which the school system must depend for support if it is to succeed in securing a future for our children.

So we’re delighted to note the new approach to complicated problems. We hope the new school board will continue to study its proposals carefully, while keeping its options open. Rim Country has a wide-open future — and so do our schools.

Already a crisis

The grim evidence continues to mount: Wrenching ecological changes remain in store for Rim Country’s forests. The overwhelming scientific consensus continues to pile up studies showing that human activities have contributed mightily to the inexorable warming of the planet. We should have faced up to the approaching disaster a decade ago, instead of getting caught in a pointless argument about how many meteorologists can dance on the head of a pin.

Of course, uncertainties remain. That’s the nature of science. But that’s why people buy car insurance. You can’t be sure you’ll roll the truck on the ice — but you take action against the statistical possibility.

It’s long past time to take out insurance on the probability of climate change.

Clearly, we’ve delayed too long to prevent sweeping changes from taking place. In today’s edition, we report on the latest research on how the projected increase in the duration and severity of droughts in Arizona will affect the forests on which our economy depends.

Periods of drought damage the ability of trees like ponderosa pines to take up water even after the rains return. As a result, we can expect widespread tree deaths and a marked shift in habitats. The ponderosa pine forest will likely retreat to higher elevations and shrink. The deserts will move uphill from the Valley. Payson can expect wholesale changes, since we perch on the ecological boundary between ponderosas and pinyon pines.

These revelations give new urgency to projects like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which seeks to thin dangerously overcrowded forests. If we don’t dramatically thin overstocked forests, the changes in rainfall patterns will have an even more wrenching effect — starting with a dramatic increase in massive, habitat-changing wildfires.

As citizens, we must insist that our foolish, ostrich-like leaders stop sticking their thick heads in the increasingly dry sand. They must abandon business-as-usual and go into crisis mode — while we still have time to adapt.

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