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Peter Aleshire / Photos by Peter Aleshire  

Poppies near the Tonto National Monument in 2017. The flowers haven’t bloomed there yet, but experts say it should be a very good year for wildflowers. Poppies are already making an appearance near Saguaro Lake.

Arizona teachers still struggle with low pay, big classes

A year or two of spending increase can’t compensate for a decade of neglect when it comes to school financing, according to a just-released Arizona auditor general report on school spending.

Arizona schools are spending $8,300 per student, compared to a national average of $11,800 — that’s 42 percent below the national average.

Although teachers in most districts got a 10 percent raise last year, they still make about 23 percent less than teachers nationally. Moreover, Arizona teachers have 16 percent more students than the national average, according to the report, released on Monday.

And Payson teachers make even less and have even bigger classes.

Payson teachers make about 6 percent less than the state average and have 14 percent more students per teacher — 20.5 students compared to 18.5 statewide.

On the other hand, teachers in Pine, Tonto Basin and Young make about 10 percent more than the state average and have one-half to one-third as many students.

Despite two infusions of money in the past two years, per-student, inflation-adjusted spending in Arizona remains $800 below the level in 2008 before the recession.

Overall, the Payson Unified School District fared well on the report when it comes to low administrative costs and financial stability

Thanks to high transportation and facilities costs, the percentage of the district’s budget going straight into the classroom actually dropped slightly to 49.7 percent. That compares to a statewide classroom share of about 54 percent, up from about 53 percent.

Payson fared poorly when it comes to the graduation rate. Some 75 percent of students graduated, compared to 86 percent in comparable, small, rural school districts and a statewide average of 78 percent.

Payson spent roughly $762 per student on administration, compared to the $860 per-student statewide average. Some 10 percent of the total budget goes to administration.

Payson’s plant operations amount to $6.10 per student, plus $1,501 per student in transportation costs. Because of Payson’s unusual system, students change schools every two to four years. This means the district doesn’t really have neighborhood schools and students wind up getting bused all over town in the course of their career in the district.

On the other hand, Payson students generally have better scores on state assessments than either peer schools or schools statewide. Payson beat the average in math, English and science. That strong student performance came despite a family poverty rate of 23 percent, much higher than the 19 percent state average. Family income and education generally have the biggest single impact on standardized test scores.

Meanwhile, the small Pine, Tonto Basin and Young school districts all reaped huge financial benefits from the state’s small schools formula. This gives them a bonus for each student that far exceeds Payson’s entire per-student spending. The formula compensates for the inability to enjoy economies of scale on things like administration and facilities.

So for a comparison: Payson spends about $9,000 per student. But the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School District spends about $28,000 per student, including a whopping $4,286 on administration. Teachers make about $53,000 and have just 6.6 students per teacher. The district has 112 students, who transfer to Payson once they hit middle school. Students score well above the average, both for the state and for “peer” districts.

The Tonto Basin Elementary School District also spends $28,000 per student, including $6,670 on administration for its 65 students. Teachers make $53,000 and have an average of 9.3 students per teacher. Meals cost $6.92 per student, more than double what Payson spends. Students score well above the state average — and well above Payson.

The Young Elementary School District spends about $36,000 per student, with 39 students in the district. The average teacher salary is $53,000, with about five students per teacher. Just the administrative costs work out to about $8,600 per student — almost as much as Payson spends for everything on a per-student basis. Meals cost $13 each, compared to $2.96 in Payson. Students scored below the state average in math and close to the state average in English. The auditor general’s report didn’t include results for Young in science.

The state auditor general’s cost often focuses on the share of district budgets going to “instructional” costs like teacher salaries versus all other “non-instructional” costs, like administration, facilities and transportation. However schools say the figures are misleading, because many things like counselors, computers, student support services, aides and other costs don’t count as part of the “instructional” percentage.

Nonetheless, Auditor General Lindsey Perry said the instructional share is still 4.6 percentage points below the high point in 2004. And even after adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than it was in 2004 and $861 below the high point in 2008 before the Great Recession. According to Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fisher.

Perry said that the additional dollars did boost the average teacher pay in Arizona from $48,372 to $48,951. And she said that overall school districts employed 101 additional teachers which resulted in a slight reduction in the state’s students per teacher ratio.

“Part of the reason for Arizona’s lower average teacher salary may be due to Arizona’s teachers having fewer years of experience, on average, when compared to the national average,’’ she reported. Perry said Arizona teachers average 11 years of experience compared with the national figure of 13.7 years.

And there’s something else.

In the most recent year, Arizona’s average class size was 18.5 students per teacher compared to the national average of 16.

The bottom line, she said, is that Arizona spends less than $8,300 per student in operating costs, compared with the national average of more than $11,800, with 54 percent of those Arizona dollars winding up in the classroom in Arizona compared with 60.9 percent of the higher national education spending figure.

But Perry said this isn’t due to high administration costs, pointing out that these costs in the average Arizona district eat up 10.4 percent of dollars, versus 11.2 percent nationally.


Gila County vaccination rates fall to dangerously low levels

Schools in Gila County don’t have high enough vaccination rates to prevent an outbreak of preventable, potentially lethal childhood diseases, according to Arizona Department of Health Services statistics.

Only 44 percent of schools in Gila County have vaccination rates among kindergartners sufficient to confer “herd immunity,” which can keep serious diseases like polio, measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough from spreading through the population.

Gila County’s vaccination rate is well below the state average and has been dropping steadily.

When it comes to just measles, 71 percent of Gila County schools have vaccination rates above 95 percent, compared to a statewide average of 78 percent, according to the state department of health services.

However, the Arizona Legislature is considering a package of bills that would further reduce already declining vaccination rates, in the face of a national resurgence of measles — a sometimes fatal childhood disease.

Experts say the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is 97 percent effective, but sometimes causes a fever, a mild rash, a sore arm or temporary pain and stiffness, mostly in older women getting the rubella component.

In rare cases, the MMR vaccine can cause seizures or jerking caused by fever, but hasn’t been shown to cause any long-term harm. However, some people have an allergic reaction to components of the vaccine.

Those side effects are less serious than the effects of the diseases they prevent, especially measles, experts say.

Aside from the fever, aches, and pain caused by the disease, complications of the diseases the vaccine prevents can include brain damage, death, meningitis, miscarriage and birth defects.

Arizona Rep. Kelly Townsend said requiring children to get vaccinated was “communist.”

In a Facebook post that gained national attention, Townsend expressed dismay that people “are prepared to give up our liberty, the very sovereignty of our body, because of measles.”

The U.S. is in the midst of a measles outbreak, with 159 cases in 10 states since Jan. 1.

Other states are moving to limit exemptions now freely available for parents worried about possible side effects of the vaccine. However, the three bills would move Arizona in the opposite direction.

The bills would require doctors giving the shots to hand parents a daunting stack of paperwork describing side effects and ingredients, establish a new exemption based on religion, while making it easier for parents to opt out on any grounds.

The bill passed through the House health committee last week.

Gov. Doug Ducey immediately threatened to veto the bills if they make it to his desk, a rare move for the Republican governor in reaction to legislation that escaped committee on a party-line vote.

“I’m pro-vaccine, I’m anti-measles. I want to see fewer people being exposed to measles and the other things we’ve spent decades, through research and development in the medical industry and health care, making our country a safer place to live,” said Ducey, according to Capitol Media Services.

The Arizona Department of Health Services regularly reports incidents involving potential exposure to measles, mostly related to visitors from other areas. This includes seven warnings issued in 2018, although there are no confirmed cases of measles in the state at present.

Neighboring California and Colorado, however, have both experienced outbreaks this year.

Once nearly eliminated, the federal Centers for Disease Control reports measles has returned with a vengeance, with 206 cases reported so far this year nationally and 372 for all of last year. Reports peaked at 667 in 2014.

Vaccination rates for many childhood diseases in Gila County schools mostly fall below the 95 percent rate needed to prevent a single case from spreading and triggering an outbreak.

That’s mostly because 4.7 percent of parents claim a “personal exemption” for their children. Another 1 percent claim a medical exemption and 2.3 percent claim an exemption from any vaccine.

Payson Elementary School has a 91 percent vaccination rate, with almost 10 percent of parents claiming an exemption, according to state figures.

Only a few counties have a higher “personal exemption” rate for kindergartners, including Yavapai (14 percent), Mohave (6.8 percent), Maricopa (5.9 percent), Pinal (5 percent) and Navajo (5.1 percent). Payson’s exemption rate is higher than any of those except Yavapai.

Schools in other counties have a much higher vaccination rate, including Yuma (98 percent), La Paz (99 percent), Apache (97 percent), Cochise (97 percent), Pima (96 percent), Santa Cruz (97 percent) and Yuma (98 percent).

The low vaccination rates apply to most of the preventable childhood diseases, including measles, polio, meningococcal diseases, whooping cough, pertussis, diptheria, tetnas, hepatitis B and A, varicella and others.

Gila County schools do much better at ensuring kids get their vaccinations by sixth grade.

The vaccination rates rise to about 98 percent for polio, measles, hep B and varicella in sixth grade and the number of parents claiming personal exemptions drops to 2.2 percent — with another 1 percent claiming exemption from every required vaccine.

Vaccination rates for other diseases remain below the 95 percent threshold needed to ensure “herd immunity,” even among sixth-graders.

Gila County’s preschools are doing better. About 94 percent of the preschool children get vaccinated, with 2.8 percent of parents claiming a personal exemption and 3.5 percent exempt from every vaccine. That’s right on the state average.

The vaccination rates in Gila County have been declining steadily since 2010, as the number of parents claiming exemptions has risen.

Back in 2010, the vaccination rate for measles in Gila County schools was about 94 percent, with 1.4 percent of parents claiming a personal exemption. The other diseases had a roughly 98 percent vaccination rate, according to state figures.

Spotlight shines on Payson lip sync contestants

The Thomas Walling Memorial Lip Sync Contest at Payson High School Auditorium on Saturday, March 2 featured 15 toe-tapping performances.

Performances included an opening number of Kamakawiwo’ole’s “The Lava Song” performed by members of the Payson Learning Center to the closing “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical “Rent” performed by the judges.

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup  

Payson Learning Center performs “The Lava Song” during the Thomas Walling Memorial Lip Sync Contest at the Payson High School Auditorium on March 2.

Payson High graduate Cody Rislund served as the master of ceremonies and kept the audience laughing between acts.

The Longhorn Theater Company took over the Payson Lip Sync Contest after the Rim Country Optimist Club decided to stop after a successful 10-year run.

“The high school theater department is very grateful to have worked with the Optimist Club on this project, which has created a tradition of camaraderie among many different ages and fueled passion for performing,” said Payson High School theater educator Kathy Siler.

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup  

Jace Cadwell performs “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The drama club voted to name the contest in memory of longtime theater department co-director Thomas Walling, who passed away in 2016. Many remember him as a passionate arts supporter. He managed the PUSD auditorium and served on the Tonto Community Concert Association and the Payson Choral Society boards.

“He loved the lip sync contest and put in many of his own hours to make it bigger and better each year,” Siler said. “He had a special talent in encouraging young people to try something they’ve never done before, such as auditioning for the lip sync contest or the school musical.”

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup 

Gwendalyn Bowman performs "I'm Good" during The Thomas Walling Memorial Lip Sync Contest at Payson Auditorium on March 2, 2019.

The first show under the new management proved a challenge. But Siler has a grand vision for the event.

“The drama club figured that the first year that our drama club took over the contest, organization efforts would be less than in past years,” she said. “They decided to focus on raising enough money through ticket sales for the prize money.”

Next year, the group hopes to get more help and bring back the gift basket auction and advanced ticket sales. They will use the money for both prize money and a Thomas Walling Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship will go to a senior who wants to pursue the performing arts.

Keith Morris / Keith Morris/Roundup  

Taylor Keeney performs “September.”

Samantha Garr finished first for her performance of Christina Augilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” She also won the Audience Choice Award.

Taylor Keeney finished second for her take on Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.”

Cameron Middaugh finished third for her performance of “Mother Knows Best” from the film “Tangled.”

Siler said the event offers students a chance to shine.

“Arts in schools matter,” she said. “They change lives for the better and create caring, empathetic people who know how to collaborate, solve problems and innovate.”

Siler said she loves how the event brings students from sixth through 12th grades together.

“This is a sweet foreshadowing for how play week for “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” will go in April,” she said. “There are 14 cast members and 12 crew members from grades sixth through 12th.”

The drama club is seeking volunteers for that event, set for 7 p.m. on April 11 and 13 and 4:30 p.m. on April 12. Volunteers can help run the concession stand, bake goods, serve as backstage helpers, mend costumes and run errands. If interested, contact Siler at the high school, 928-474-2233.

Community pays respects to Star Valley mayor

More than 1,000 Rim Country residents paid their respects March 2 at the Tonto Apache Gym for former Star Valley Mayor Ronnie McDaniel.

Troy Neal served as master of ceremonies telling the story of McDaniel’s life to a standing room only crowd in the gym.

Hellsgate Fire Department firefighters showed up in their dress uniforms to pay tribute to their town’s mayor.

“Mayor McDaniel was a friend to everyone of us, performed most of our marriages, honored us with being a friend and a mentor,” wrote the Northern Gila County Firefighters on its Facebook page.

Photographer DJ Craig Miller said McDaniel officiated at many of the weddings he documented.

“He was the choice of countless couples,” said Miller on Facebook.

Neal spoke of McDaniel’s years of service. It included work with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, the Payson Unified School District board, as a justice of the peace and twice mayor of Star Valley.

Gila County Superintendent Roy Sandoval summed up how many felt.

“I have such high regard for this tough, thoughtful and tender man,” he wrote in a post. “He truly represents the best of Payson and of our country.”

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School candidates face tough questions

The Payson school board Friday asked Stan Rentz, a former Georgia schools superintendent, to take over running the 2,400-student district.

The board and Rentz continued to negotiate on Thursday. During his public appearance, Rentz had said his acceptance of an offer would depend on how he meshed with the board. School officials said they hope to have an agreement before the March 25 board meeting.

“Dr. Rentz was the most qualified and best fit for our community. He’s what we felt would lead our district in the direction we want to go,” said Barbara Underwood, school board president.

The offer came quickly after four finalists interviewed before the board and appeared in two community forums. The board used feedback from the community to confirm they had made the best choice, said Underwood.

The candidates were vying to replace Superintendent Greg Wyman, who resigned after three years in Payson to return to the Valley for family reasons.

Rentz formerly ran the 3,200-student Jefferson Davis Unified School District in Georgia, where he spent a 25-year career as a teacher, principal and administrator.

He said he after raising his children, he wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in the American Southwest.

“I set out intending to change the world,” he said. “And I realized you may not change the world, but you can change the life of a child.”

Underwood said the four finalists offered the board a tough choice, especially since they included one hometown favorite – Cain Jagodzinski, a former Payson teacher, championship basketball coach and presently the turnaround principal of Fountain Hills High School.

The other two candidates were Barbara Remondini, a former principal and assistant superintendent working for a private firm focused on boosting student achievement and Clay Emery, a middle school principal from Safford, with experience as a teacher and assistant principal.

Explaining why he resigned from his job in Georgia, Rentz said “I’m in a place in my life were I can be anywhere I want to be and where I want to be is the American Southwest.”

He said a childhood trip to the area left him wanting to eventually live here. He grew up on a farm in rural Georgia.

During the public forum, he stressed the need to build strong relationships and create a school culture that supports teachers.

“I want everyone to know ‘you matter.’ I hope my actions match those words. I never take myself too seriously, but I have zero tolerance of negativity.”

Rentz had the broadest experience among the candidates, having taught or administered at the elementary, middle school and high school level, before working as a superintendent.

“I felt like I could someday effect change in a superintendent job using what I consider my gift – to make people feel like they matter – and our students need to feel that too. It all comes down to relationships.”

He admitted he wasn’t familiar with the educational system in Arizona, for instance not knowing what a property tax based “budget override” implies. However, he ran a larger school district in Georgia, which faced challenges due to a high poverty rate among families. Payson faces similar challenges.

During the forums, the candidates faced tough questions about what they would do with budget cuts, helping students cope with social and emotional challenges, adapting to the financial and academic demands of a rural community and turning around school performance.

That final issue had special relevance in Payson, given that Payson High School fell from a B rating to a C rating on the last statewide grading system. The high school has struggled with declining student test scores and graduation rates.

Here are some of the points the four candidates made.

Stan Rentz

The has a Ph.D. in education, but grew up on a farm in Georgia, where he learned self-reliance as a boy by selling seeds and newspapers door to door. The district he now administers is a little larger than Payson and has a somewhat higher level of family poverty, with 65 percent of the students qualifying for free and reduced school lunches.

He said a school consists of two types of employees: Teachers and people whose job is to support teachers. The key to administering a school or district, remains making sure that all the employees believe they matter.

He added, “I set an example by the way I lead. Everyone has a title, but there’s no one who’s more important than anyone else in our organization.”

Clay Emery

After a career in the Safford schools, the middle school principal says he’s eager to move to Payson. He stressed his religious roots and family orientations, having decided during his missionary work to shift from medicine to education. Raised in Safford, he taught Spanish and history in California schools before coming home. He served as a principal for 12 years in Safford, which now ranks as an A-rated school. He also teaches at Northern Arizona University.

“I’m a person of faith,” he said in his introduction, “and a family-centered person.” He said he has always worked to empower students and teachers — and to stand by them when they face challenges.

“I’ve always said my teachers would give a limb for me,” because by standing by them he has “built that trust. So even when your weaknesses shine through — and they will — they’re forgiving.”

Barbara Remondini

The educational consultant has also served for nine years as a school principal as well as the assistant superintendent for a newly reunified school district. She also teaches at Northern Arizona University. Currently, she works with the firm that conducts studies the critical renewal of district and school credentials — including Payson’s. She has a Ph.D. in educational leadership. She said she raised her two daughters alone and both have gone into education.

She said she’s eager to leave Chandler and return to living in a rural community. She grew up on a farm and loves the out-of-doors, having recently paddled 256 miles through the Grand Canyon with her father. She said she’s an introvert whose learned to be an extrovert. Her key approach is to set high standards, but then to help people reach those standards.

She said she worked in Arizona schools before the debilitating cuts of the past 10 years and understands the need to advocate for schools with the Legislature, as well as making tough decisions about budget priorities as well as the need to develop community support to continue passing budget overrides and donating to schools.

Cain Jagodzinski

His educational career started in 1999 with a teaching job at Payson High School, where he also coached the basketball teams for both the high school and the middle school. He has a doctorate in education from NAU, a master’s from ASU and a bachelor’s from NAU. He grew up near Columbine, Co. and the searing experience of the school shooting there gave him a lifelong interest in school culture and security. He wrote his dissertation on school safety.

He said his career has been driven by a passion for children — and his wife is an elementary school principal. He has three children, two boys and a girl — and coaches Little League and club basketball.

He was the most familiar of the candidates with Payson and existing programs. He said the district needs to add cost-effective technologies like interactive television programs and whiteboards. “But the first thing you need to do is train teachers (in technology). You have to put in the up-front work. But you have experts right here in the district.”

He talked about the approach that turned his C-rated high school in Fountain Hills to an A school.

“This was our hedgehog concept — we’re going to be the best at one thing,” he said. “It worked, we decided to become the best organization to support our kids.”

Jagodzinski brought data to show he increased the graduation rate by providing extra support for those kids who might be the first in their family to go to college. He then expanded the vocational training program. He adopted a six-class advanced placement program that required a two-year commitment and a thesis.

Peter Aleshire contributed to this story.