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Northern Gila County Fair this weekend

The Northern Gila County Fair could be the Rim Country’s second-oldest continuous event (behind the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo) and it’s this weekend, starting Thursday evening and continuing through Sunday.

Exhibits are at both the Payson Event Center and the Tonto Apache Gym. The exhibits at the TAG are non-agriculture, non-horticulture and non-floriculture.

Events open to the public start at 5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 5 with an opening ceremony in the main arena of the Payson Event Center. Scheduled for the rest of the evening: a dessert auction in the entertainment tent by the Payson Senior Center, 5:30 p.m.; a talent show in the entertainment tent at 6 p.m.; a worship concert at 7 p.m.; and a theater performance, time to be announced.

Kids Day is celebrated at the fair from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday, Sept. 6 and special festivities and events include a magic show at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.; face painting from 8 a.m. to noon; and the arrival of the Native Air Helicopter at 9 a.m. Throughout the day the Oxbow Outfit group will host roping and panning for gold exhibits.

Also scheduled Friday is a draft horse exhibit offered throughout the day; local history stories; an archery demonstration from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and a Mounted Cowboy shooters clinic from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the warm-up arena. Large stock — goats, sheep, steers and swine — takes center stage in the livestock tent, open to the public at 10 a.m. with a show and judging.

A gymkhana horse show, open to all horse types and all ages of competitors, starts at 5 p.m. in the main arena at the event center.

Live music is offered in the entertainment tent and then at 9 p.m. is the 5th Quarter with live music and dancing and free admittance for high school students.

Things get underway at 8 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 7 when the exhibits open and an archery shoot is tentatively set from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., plus team roping is scheduled in the main arena from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The livestock tent is occupied with the small stock show from 8:30 a.m. to noon and check-in for the 10 a.m. cornhole tournament starts at 8:30 a.m. as well at the southwest end of the event center.

Free mammograms are offered at the fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be a performance of The Wildflowers group in the entertainment tent and a draft horse expo is slated for the main arena.

The all-important livestock auction is at 4 p.m. in the livestock tent. This is where the young people taking part in 4-H and FFA hope to recoup the costs they have incurred raising livestock for projects and possibly make some money to invest in a new animal project.

The entertaining Ranch Rodeo is at 7 p.m. and features performances by The Wildflowers and Oxbow Outfitters groups.

Top off the day by enjoying live music in the entertainment tent starting at 9 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 8 gates open at noon for a round-robin competition and flat track racing.

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Payson schools face critical vote

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Stan Rentz has been introducing himself to the community he now serves — and offering a little education on a critical issue appearing on the November ballot.

The low key, recently hired former superintendent of a small school district in Georgia, has appeared before the Rim Country Republican Club and other community groups in recent weeks to open communications and get the word out on the budget override measure voters will soon determine whether to extend.

“It’s critical,” said Rentz. “If the override doesn’t pass, we need to make some very tough decisions about things that need to be cut. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of that. We end up cheating our kids out of some opportunities if we do not pass this.”

If voters reject the measure, the district will lose its long-term authority under state law to spend about 10 percent more on its students than restrictive state law allows. If voters reject the measure, the district would have to cut its roughly $14 million budget by $450,000 immediately, with another cut coming each year for three years.

By the time the smoke clears, the district would have $1.4 million less to spend. That’s nearly $600 per student.

Payson voters in the past have almost consistently supported the budget override for the district. The existing override tax costs the owner of a $170,000 house about $87 per year.

Homeowners already pay the tax as part of the secondary property tax rate. If voters extend the override for another four years, they won’t see an increase in their taxes. If they reject the extension, the owner of a $170,000 house would see his tax drop about $30 annually for the next three years.

However, loss of the budget override authority could have far-reaching impacts on the 2,400-student district, with enrollment finally rising after years of decline.

Currently, the district devotes the extra $1.4 million annually to a variety of purposes. One of the most crucial is hiring enough teachers to keep class sizes from rising. This year’s surge in enrollment has already increased class sizes by a couple of students per class on average — especially in the overcrowded elementary school classrooms. An override failure would likely force the district to reduce its teaching staff by 5-10 percent, resulting in an even bigger surge in class sizes. Already, many elementary school classrooms have 28 to 31 students. Many high school classrooms have 30 to 35 students.

Arizona has the largest average class sizes in the nation, and some of the lowest average teacher salaries. Studies show a strong link between student achievement in small classes —especially in elementary school. Ideally, elementary school classes should be below 17, according to years of research on student achievement.

The $1.4 million in override money also supports a wealth of other programs, which could face deep cuts if voters reject the extension.

The override money supports both the district’s music program and sports program, paying for the salaries of the teachers who make those programs possible. Most of the extra costs for both those programs come from community donations through the Credit for Kids program, which therefore leverages the value of the override money’s support for the teachers’ salaries.

The override money also pays to “attract and retain” quality staff, in the face of a statewide teacher shortage. Payson has managed to provide teacher salaries slightly above the average of other rural school districts in the state. As a result, the district has been spared the worst of the impacts of the teacher shortage, which has forced many other districts to hire teachers without credentials or to ask teachers who do have credentials to teach outside their specialty.

Rentz said no matter what happens, he will strive to make students the focal point of any decision he makes.

“I want to spend a lot of time over the next couple of months listening, observing, learning. You have to understand the problems before you can come up with solutions,” said Rentz, who spent decades as a teacher and administrator in Georgia, before fulfilling a lifetime dream of living in Arizona.

“I hope to create an environment where our parents feel we’re actively listening and working in partnership with parents, who we’re supposed to help. We can’t educate children effectively without the parents’ support. Parents need to feel free to share with the teachers how their children are doing at home — while listening to what’s going on in school as well. I know it’s frustrating for parents when they don’t know what to do sometimes, because every child is different. There are triggers and you need to find out what button to push to reach a child.”

Rentz said his top priority remains the effort to create a culture at the district that supports students, parents and teachers.

“I don’t know who said it — but I believe that ‘culture’ eats ‘strategy’ for lunch. Culture trumps everything. If you’ve got the right culture in place, everything else is so much easier. You need to have everyone working together to do what’s best for kids — and that comes from a culture that says everyone matters, no one is any more important than anyone else. I’m not one bit more valuable than that custodian in that school, making sure it’s a place where kids want to come to school.”

And that’s true enough.

But it would sure help create that culture, if the override passes — and the district doesn’t spend the next three years cutting teachers, slashing programs, killing off extracurricular programs and coping with the effects of fewer teachers and larger class sizes.

“The schools are part of the community. So somebody that cares about the school system, also cares about this community. But we have to match our words to our actions. If anybody has a vote, the first thing is to ask questions — find out the ramifications of a yes vote or a no vote. Don’t just vote, know why you are going to vote one way or the other.”

The key remains communication, which is why he promises to remain open to the community — both the praise and the criticism.

“I will listen. I’ll listen to learn. The more you understand the bigger picture the more you realize there is a lot of common ground. It’s really about me understanding you and you understanding me — the more we do that the better we can work for the good of all kids.”

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Community Center Partners seek partnership with town for Community Center

It’s free.

Well, kind of.

Hey, at least the pitch for a Payson community center, covered pool, new ballfields and parks was free for the skeptical members of the Payson Town Council on Wednesday.

The council on Aug. 28 sat down with the consultants designing the Rim Country Educational Foundation’s (RCEF) Multi-Generational Community Recreation and Aquatic Center. The meeting was billed as “an invitation to the Town of Payson to participate in a partnering role.”

Despite the growing tension spurred by the actions of the new council majority and a recall effort mounted by their critics, the meeting was a model of civility and cooperation.

When Morrissey and other members of the council majority campaigned they expressed concern over a similar plan to build a pool, ice rink and community center in Rumsey Park in partnership with the sports academy Varxity. They cited a variety of concerns, including a need for greater town oversight. The town and the sports academy paid the consultants $150,000 to develop those plans. The RCEF hired the same consultants to change the plans to fit on a portion of the 254 acres bought as the site for a hoped-for university in Payson.

Pitching the partnershipAt the meeting on Wednesday, consultant Lee Ploszaj, a managing partner for Community Center Partners, said the RCEF would welcome a “strategic partnership” with the town.

Payson’s Parks and Recreation Department could “work ... with elite programs and all the things this community has said they want,” said Ploszaj — things such as yoga classes, card rooms, meeting rooms, swim teams, tournaments, etc.

Payson would become one of a dozen partners in the project, which would include backers of an elite prep school. The lease agreements would make it possible for the backers to line up financing to build the facilities.

“In these next steps, we would ask that you would give us the opportunity to work with staff to understand the financial model of the town,” said Ploszaj.

The CCP would establish a lease agreement with the town to pay for parks and recreation to use the facilities.

The CCP-Payson partnership would then reduce fees for any Payson resident.

Councilor Barbara Underwood said that other cities have also relied on memberships to support community centers.

“Recently, my daughter moved into Anthem,” she said. “Their (community center) membership is $80 a month. They get all the amenities.”

She said she didn’t think Payson residents could afford Valley prices, though.

“Your estimate is $50 a month,” she said.

Ploszaj said if the town partners with CCP, the monthly price would drop to $30.

“We want accessibility by anybody and that is the primary reason to drive the price,” said Ploszaj.

He said the sports academy would open its training center to the town, if it partnered with CCP.

“Yes, we are privately financed, but in our proposed arrangement with the town we want the training center to be open to the public,” said Ploszaj.

Throughout the meeting, Ploszaj repeatedly said the town would not pay any construction costs.

“There is no special investment to the town. There is no requirement for debt or equity. We are not asking for guarantees,” said Ploszaj.

He did have one limitation — time. Because Varxity will build the private sports academy even if the town doesn’t participate, the backers need to know whether to include Payson.

“Time is of the essence. I don’t want to finish up the drawings if they are of something the town does not want,” said Ploszaj.

He then asked for questions.

The council weighs inVice Mayor Janell Sterner said her biggest concern “is the community.”

“I have friends that live down there. The first thing they did when they saw those trucks was call me and complain, ‘What is going on?’” she said. “Why didn’t you go out and say, ‘Hey this is coming?’”

Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian had the same concerns about “the trees that were cut down.”

“Just reach out and say, ‘Hey, welcome, this is who we are,’” she said.

Councilor Steve Smith agreed with Sterner and Tubbs-Avakian, but saw benefits to partnering.

“I’d like to support what council member Sterner said ... when we were going to develop anything, and it was going to be over a five-acre site, we had development meetings with the community. The value of that was we could help the community understand some of the conditions,” he said.

Smith offered suggestions on how the town and CCP could structure a deal.

“There are already some agreements with the Town of Payson now to provide police and fire ... such as we have with East Verde Estates,” he said. “There is a cost to providing services. Some of this (partnering cost) could be offset by the services we are providing.”

Councilor Jim Ferris foresaw troubles.

“We’re supposed to be involved (in RCEA),” he said. “The Town of Payson was to have three members on the board. (Instead) it has been that we don’t have any input or communication with the (RCEA) board ... we need to get involved.”

Recall launched against Steve Smith

Dave Golembewski last week pulled papers so he can gather 1,638 signatures to find out if Payson voters want to recall Councilor Steve Smith, bringing to five the number of council members facing the threat of a recall.

Golembewski’s application says “Smith has created animosity and discord at every Payson council meeting in the attempt to disrupt new motions and progress.”

The petition also cites, “an extreme lack of judgment on the part of a Payson city council member” for his part in helping former Town Attorney Hector Figueroa put his gun in his car after rodeo staff told Figueroa to do so.

Controversy has dogged Smith ever since he was appointed by the outgoing council to fill former Payson Councilor Richard Croy’s seat after his resignation.

Smith’s appointment spurred a brief open meeting law investigation, triggered by the Roundup’s questions about the law. Golembewski and some newly elected, incoming council members criticized the appointment — saying the old council should have let the new council fill the seat.

“This gives the voters a chance to vote on Steve as he was appointed, not elected,” said Golembewski.

Smith agrees in the concept of the recall process.

“I believe it is the right of every voter if they believe the elected official is not serving them as they wish,” he said of a recall election.

Earlier in August, a group of citizens launched a recall signature-gathering effort against Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey and Payson Town Councilors Jim Ferris, Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Janell Sterner. Those four have formed a consistent town majority that voted to fire Town Manager LaRon Garrett.

Recall efforts stem from complaints about the tone and tenor of Payson politics.

Things have steadily escalated since the new council took their seats in mid-December. Conflicts between Smith and Morrissey have erupted during several meetings. Smith filed an open meeting law violation with the Attorney General’s Office because of an email about broadband sent to Morrissey, Ferris, Sterner and Tubbs-Avakian.

Smith also opposed Morrissey’s formation of a council subcommittee made up the mayor and Tubbs-Avakian and Ferris. The subcommittee will review past contracts and could hire consultants.

Smith also objected to the process by which Morrissey filled empty spots on council committees, such as Parks and Recreation and the Airport Commission. Smith said Morrissey should have involved other council members in reviewing any applicants and that the mayor mostly filled the slots with his friends and acquaintances.

Smith, along with the council minority of Barbara Underwood and Chris Higgins, vocally opposed the abrupt firing of Garrett.

“My job is to represent everyone fairly and impartially and do what is in the best interest of Payson,” said Smith.

The transition has proved challenging for the former National Guard colonel.

“In all my leadership time, this is the most difficult,” he said, “because I’m not the commander or the military officer, I’m the person who has to listen and has to be fair ... so often it is the people that are silent that need the most representation — like kids or battered women, senior citizens or the mentally ill or those that suffer from PTSD.”

Those people inspire Smith.

“I volunteered to be that voice so long as the people will have me,” he said.

Golembewski has printed up 130 petitions, “enough for 1,653 signatures,” he said.

“We both believe in the people’s wishes — I think that’s called democracy,” said Golembewski.

As of now, he has no committee to support him and has agreed to only spend $500.

He said he would drop his effort if the other group drops the recall against the four-councilor majority.

“I believe in the election process,” he said, “I would like my recall added on their recall election date to avoid additional costs to the town. I would consider dropping mine only if I was the only recall cost to the town, as I don’t want to burden the town.”

Call Golembewski at 928-951-2794 to ask questions or volunteer.

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