No Teacher Layoffs

PUSD Superintendent Ron Hitchcock

PUSD Superintendent Ron Hitchcock Photo by Andy Towle. |

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The Payson School Board Monday night approved a passel of new administrative contracts as well as 128 teacher contracts that will mark the first time in three years the district has avoided teacher layoffs.

The action represents the latest, potentially expensive board effort to make boosting student test scores the district’s top priority. The district doesn’t yet know how much money it will get from the state for the 2013-14 school year, but Superintendent Ron Hitchcock remains confident he can finance the new positions by shifting state and federal money around, providing the Legislature doesn’t replace the modest K-12 spending increases in Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget with a fresh round of cutbacks.

The Payson board has previously approved a series of actions that will add five days to teaching contracts and produce an increase in total salary of about $2,000 for most teachers. After freezing the salary schedule for the past five years, teachers will also finally get added pay for the extra degrees and credentials they’ve earned.

In addition, the board on Monday approved a significant, one-year boost in the stipends for coaches and other teachers that run extracurricular programs. The increases boost many stipends from about $2,000 to about $2,500 — with the head football coach getting $3,500. The board also approved the addition of a slew of additional assistant coaches. The district will use federal forest fee money to pay for the $35,000 worth of additional stipends this year, in hopes students and parents can raise enough extra money to keep the stipends and extra coaches in the future.

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“A full-time position to train bus drivers? I have a problem with this. We’ve got to stop hiring people here. Where does it stop?” Rory Huff Payson School Board member

Finally, the board approved contracts for new “student achievement” teachers at the middle school and high school, a new district coordinator for vocational programs, and even a new position for someone to train bus drivers.

The board also approved administrative contracts for three administrators reassigned to supposedly teaching-based positions. Several weeks ago, Hitchcock shifted Payson High School Principal Anna Van Zile to a newly created position as student achievement coordinator, returned Payson Elementary School Principal Donna Haught to the classroom and shifted Rim Country Middle School Vice Principal Yvette Harpe to a newly created position as education and career action plan coordinator.

Hitchcock said that the district acted on all those changes after the April 15, state-mandated deadline for telling administrators they won’t get a contract for the fall. Therefore, the district left all three on the administrative schedule, with no change in pay. However, a year from now all three will shift to the teaching salary schedule. That may — or may not — result in a decrease in pay, noted Hitchcock. Some senior teachers at the high school, he said, make more money than Van Zile did as the principal.

Some board members fretted about committing the district to the extra spending since the Legislature hasn’t yet adopted a budget.

“My God,” said board member Rory Huff at one point. “A full-time position to train bus drivers? I have a problem with this. We’ve got to stop hiring people here. Where does it stop?”

He stifled his objection, however, when he learned that the district had freed up the money for the bus driver training position by dropping a bus route, so it would need one less full-time bus driver.

After the meeting, Hitchcock said the board’s action means that the district will not undertake layoffs that would affect the 120 teachers and the eight counselors and nurses. However, the district may not end up filling the eight teaching vacancies that currently exist thanks to resignations and retirements. The board Monday also approved 14 administrative contracts.

Hitchcock said that some $418,000 in forest fees intended to help rural districts with a large amount of tax-exempt federal land will help cover the added costs this year. He has also frozen some programs to free up money for the pay increases and new positions. For instance, he said the district can save as much as $400,000 by not sending teachers and administrators to professional development training for a year.

However, the uncertainty about the state budget continues to hang over the district’s plans.

Republican lawmakers are locked in a standoff with Rep. Gov. Jan Brewer over her proposal to accept federal funding to add 400,000 people to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Gov. Brewer had also proposed modest increases in K-12 spending after five years in which Arizona made the deepest K-12 spending cuts in the nation. The state now ranks dead last in school funding nationwide. If Arizona spent as much per student as the average state, Payson’s $13 million operations and maintenance budget would rise by about $7 million.

Most of the new money Gov. Brewer had proposed for K-12 schools is earmarked to bolster reading programs in grades 2-3, money to help districts shift to the new, federally sanctioned Common Core academic standards and money to reward school districts that raise student test scores.

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