The Cannibal In The Lifeboat

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Sometimes it seems like the state’s determined to treat school districts like a cannibal in a lifeboat. What’s it gonna be guys: Eat your leg or start on your arm?

So after months of deadlock and hysteria about whether to expand the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System — the Legislature finally adopts a budget in a flurry of confusion and bitterness. At last, lawmakers decide to accept billions in federal money to expand health care coverage for the working poor.

And then almost as an afterthought, they pass a budget that delivers yet another blow to K-12 schools — which really remain the Legislature’s core responsibility.

So the Payson Unified School District finds itself struggling through another year of dwindling funding and declining enrollment.

The little new money the Legislature dropped into the budget like spare change in a beggar’s cup will go mostly to fund the problematic reforms the Legislature has imposed on local districts.

That includes a counter-productive emphasis on student test scores to rate both teachers and schools.

Now, we’re all for accountability. But we fear this unfunded, pasted-together approach will end up simply rewarding schools with a lot of students with academically-oriented, college-educated parents.

Besides, the state budget doesn’t adequately fund even those reforms, much less make any kind of down payment on helping schools recover from the deepest education spending cuts in the nation. The district has added “student achievement teachers” and scrounged money to improve reading instruction in grades K-3, which will likely help the district cope with the new mandates.

The decision to bolster the money for individualized reading instruction for students in the early primary grades without waiting for the Legislature to adequately fund the initiative seems particularly far-sighted. Solid research supports the value of making sure third-graders can read well enough to keep up.

But in the meantime, the Payson School District’s budget continues to dwindle, the enrollment continues to decline and the payroll continues to thin.

Much of that remains out of the board’s control.

Moreover, we admire Superintendent Ron Hitchcock’s bold and creative efforts to make the most of the resources at hand and move vigorously to give the district a chance to win — even if they’re playing by the Legislature’s strange and self-defeating rules.

That said, we remain befuddled and bemused by the school board’s increasingly inexplicable decision to sell off Frontier Elementary School at a pittance.

The absurdity of that decision was fully revealed last week when the school board learned that the $1.2 million a competing Christian school has agreed to pay for Frontier will barely cover the cost of adding four kindergarten classrooms to Payson Elementary School — a befuddling revelation in its own right.

The board discussion revealed a couple of astonishing admissions. Turns out, the board members didn’t ask for and weren’t offered a long-term plan before selling off a school site. Although the town’s general plan envisions a doubling or tripling of the population and the construction of a university campus in the next year will likely jump-start renewed growth, no one so much as wrote an email on what the district will do should growth resume.

Furthermore, none of the remaining campuses has much room to expand. The few clear areas suitable for additional classrooms are now covered by solar panels with a 20-year payback schedule. So PES can maybe shoehorn in the added kindergarten classrooms — but that will consume all the money the district got from the sale of Frontier — with nothing left for so much as a multi-purpose room on the campus.

The sale of Frontier never made sense to us — given how much money the district had invested, the paltry sales price and the certainty that this town will grow and thrive in the years to come — and the school district along with it.

But we just assumed the board got a detailed briefing on census projections, facilities capacities, expansion possibilities and growth potential during those repeated closed door sessions.

Turns out, no such studies and estimates exist — and the board made its decision blind.

Bad enough the Legislature should set the school district adrift on the ocean with nothing to eat but fingers and toes. But it makes no sense at all that the school board should set to prying loose planks from the hull to obtain a supply of toothpicks.

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