School Board’S Hard Choices

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The wrenching changes in the Payson Unified School District continue to stagger teachers, administrators, students, parents and employees.

The Legislature, meanwhile, continues to largely ignore its most important responsibility — making sure our kids get the education they need.

The unsettling news of the elimination of 18 non-teaching positions represents the latest shift to send shock waves through the district’s dwindling roster of employees. The stealth layoffs followed the addition of “student achievement” teacher positions and additions to the central office staff. Mercifully, the district didn’t lay off any teachers — despite the continuing decline in enrollment. Most likely resignations and retirements will trim the teaching ranks without the need for layoffs.

Certainly, all sorts of unnerving consequences have already flowed from the school board’s embrace of Superintendent Ron Hitchcock’s effort to make boosting standardized test scores the district’s top priority. We remain concerned that the test score mania will do more harm than good. However, given the state and federal mandates that have buried the district — the emphasis on test scores makes sense.

Moreover, despite the unsettling rise in the ranks of administration — the board has so far given budget priority to the teaching staff, with a salary schedule that finally rewards teachers who get extra education. The board has also made reducing class sizes a top priority.

Still, we’re fearful the math won’t all work out. Mostly, that’s because the Legislature continues to treat children as a special interest group — rather than its top priority.

Gov. Jan Brewer this year proposed a pathetic increase in K-12 funding after years of deep cuts. Even at that, most of the new money was devoted to implementing potentially disruptive state and federal reforms that smothered local autonomy and focused myopically on test scores. We suspect that the governor’s effort to reward schools with rising test scores will eventually prove unconstitutional, since it will most likely give rich districts with college educated parents more money at the expense of rural and minority districts.

Even so, the state Legislature has remained so fixated on its ideological disdain for federal health care reform that it has refused to adopt the budget of a governor of the same party as the legislative majorities.

As a consequence, the Payson School Board has had to make one hard decision after another in accordance with the state-imposed deadlines — all without knowing how much money it will have to spend.

So despite our qualms, we support the Payson School Board’s effort to move forward and do what it must — like responsible adults. Just wish we had a few of those down in the state Capitol building.

A muted forest victory

Well, 1,000 acres — in 18 months: What is it they say? Oh, yeah, better than a sharp stick in the eye. You’ll have to forgive us if our celebration is a little muted at word Pioneer Forest Products has signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to restore to health by thinning 1,000 acres of forested land in the next 18 months.

The agreement represents the start of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which intends to turn tree thickets on millions of acres into electricity, fuel and wood products like pressboard, jointed lumber and furniture. The 4FRI approach hammered out by a group of local officials, environmentalists, foresters and loggers represents the best chance of saving the forest — and fire-menaced communities like Payson. Finding a way for loggers to turn a profit on thinning millions of acres appears the only possible way to undo a century of Forest Service mismanagement before the whole place burns to the ground.

Alas, we share the grave concerns of Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and others that the Forest Service bungled a golden opportunity by picking the wrong contractor. This crumb of a contract doesn’t allay those fears. Please note, the Forest Service awarded the contract to a company with no financing and a precarious business plan a year ago. At the time, the Forest Service said the contractor would thin 15,000 acres this year. But an extension turned into the limp gesture of a 1,000-acre work order.

Still, we’re all lashed to the Great White Whale now, tangled in harpoon rope and gasping for breath.

So we sure hope Pioneer Forest Products makes so much money on that 1,000 acres it can quickly line up financing and build the small-diameter-wood-sawmill it needs to process the 30,000 acres a year it must thin to make a dent in a deadly problem.

Any way you figure it: That’s a lot of sticks. And we’re down to one good eye.

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