The Payson School Board is happily confronting a shockingly rare dilemma.
What to do with lots of new money to help students?
The board last week learned that Payson will receive some $4.3 million from the federal American Rescue Plan intended to help school district’s nationally cope with plunging student scores, enrollment drops, learning losses and extra costs imposed by the pandemic.
That represents a massive windfall for the normally cash-strapped district – roughly 18% of the total $22 million annual budget.
The district can spread the money out over the next three years, with at least 20% devoted to addressing the learning losses that cost most students months of academic progress as they shifted in and out of distance learning in 2020.
“It’s not like we necessarily have to do exactly what we say we’re going to do,” said Finance Director Kathie Manning. “We can amend it as we go.”
The budget already includes 15 new positions for the upcoming school year, including three new classroom teachers, two teachers specializing in helping kids catch up in math and science, a special education teacher, a Career and Life Skills Teacher, three classroom aides and two social workers.
The administration has also drawn up a $1.2 million wish list for facilities improvements, including changes to make it easier to make use of all the new online tools and curriculum even after students return to regular classes.
“We do have to state that what we’re doing is beneficial – and they’re wanting statistically sound interventions,” said Superintendent Linda Gibson.
The district has to finalize plans for the money by August, but can spread the money out over the next three years. That’s critical, since the district can’t realistically hire qualified teachers, social workers and other specialists with the promise of a one-year contract – especially in a rural community in the midst of a statewide teacher shortage.
The money will also likely ensure an open-ended summer school program for the next three years, giving students who struggle during the school year a chance to catch up.
The MHA Foundation put up more than $100,000 to underwrite summer school this year for any student interested – not just those trying to make up failed or missed classes. The district kicked in another $30,000. Some 300 students have signed up for the summer classes, which teachers hope will help make up for ground lost during this year’s sometimes chaotic shifts in and out of distance learning.
The American Rescue Plan will help ensure summer school programs going forward, said Manning, who said she expects the district will document real gains in test scores this summer.
“If we don’t offer summer school,” she told the board at the last meeting, “I think the community would kill us.”
The flush of federal money will also provide the district with interesting options when it comes to implementing its new, four-day-a-week instructional schedule. The new schedule means teachers and students have Fridays off, in exchange for adding 35 minutes to each of the other four days of classes.
This year, the district held classes just four days a week – but then teachers worked one-on-one with students having trouble on Fridays. The added federal money could also provide enrichment and re-teaching sessions on Fridays.
The district is also adding social workers and specialists trained to help kids deal with social and emotional problems. Teachers have long known that kids having family, emotional and mental problems at home struggle to keep up academically. The federal money will make it possible for the district to add programs to identify those kids and provide them extra help – whether it’s to diagnose and cope with a learning disorder or help them get through a family crisis.
“If we’d had this kind of funding for the past 10 years, would we be in the place we’re in now?” asked Gibson. “I don’t know, but I think it’ll make a real difference.”
Arizona ranks 49th in per-student spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state spends $8,200 per student compared to the national average of $12,600.
It would take about $8.8 million – rather than the $4.3 million – to boost Payson’s per-student spending levels to the national average.