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Rim Country schools mostly on sweet side of the state grading curve

Most Rim Country schools did great in the state’s final rating system — except for where it really counts: Payson High School.

Payson failed to convince the state to recalculate the grade for Payson High School, which wound up with a C — quivering on the brink of a D.

On the other hand, the K-8 schools in Pine and Tonto Basin both scored an A.

Meanwhile, Julia Randall Elementary and Rim Country Middle School in Payson both got B grades.

The small Shelby School — a charter school in Tonto Village — earned a C rating.

Payson High School had improved its rating from a C to a B in previous state assessments. However, the state department of education continued to tinker with the formulas and the high school dropped in the just-released tally.

The high school fared poorly when it came to student test scores, graduation rates and academic growth by the weakest students. The one bright spot in the high school’s scores was seen in college and career readiness classes, mostly vocational classes like business, culinary arts, agriculture, shop and others.

Overall, the high school amassed a score of about 60 — just four points above the cutoff for a D grade.

The district had challenged the education department’s calculations when it came to the high school grade — especially when it came to dropout rates. But after a two-month review, the department reaffirmed the school’s C rating for 2018.

PUSD Superintendent Greg Wyman noted that statewide, test scores and school ratings mostly mirror the demographics of the school.

Most of the A schools in the state draw students from high-income neighborhoods, usually with college-educated parents. Standardized test scores dominate the ratings, although the formula does give schools extra points when low-scoring students make gains.

However, schools with many low-income families like Payson as well as rural schools accounted for very few A schools and a disproportionate number of C and D schools in the ratings statewide.

Payson High School accumulated just half of the points possible when it came to the graduation rate. PHS had a four-year graduation rate of 83 percent. Amongst Native American students — who account for about 2 percent of the student body — the graduation rate was 33 percent.

Female students had a graduation rate of 87 percent, while male students had a graduation rate of 83 percent.

Payson High School students also struggled on the statewide, AzMerit test of basic academic skills.

The percentage of students scoring “proficient” or “highly proficient” totaled 33 percent in English, 25 percent in math and in 33 percent in science. When it came to test scores, the high school got just 12 out of a possible 30 points.

Generally, the other Rim Country schools mostly did better than comparable schools statewide.

So here’s a rundown on how Rim Country schools fared. The rating system did not include Payson Elementary School, because of its unusual K-2 model. The state ratings also didn’t include Payson Center for Success, the district’s alternative high school because state officials couldn’t decide on a formula to rate the small, hybrid-online school.

The state also didn’t rate the Payson Christian School, since it’s a private school.

So here’s how the schools ranked:

Julia Randall Elementary School

82 points: B

• Grades 3-5

• Enrollment: 591 (68 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Native American)

• Inexperienced teachers: 17 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 8 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 48 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 41 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in science: 73 percent

• Growth in student scores: 43 out of 50 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 3.5 out of 5 points

Rim Country Middle School

• 79 points: B

• Enrollment: 510 (74 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic)

• Inexperienced teachers: 7 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 32 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 48 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 45 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in science: 59 percent

• Growth in student scores: 40 out of 50 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 3.5 out of 5 points

Payson High School

• 60 points: C

• Enrollment: 657 (72 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American)

• Inexperienced teachers: 23 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 21 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 34 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 26 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in science: 33 percent

• Growth in student scores: 12 out of 20 points

• Four-year graduation rate: 83 percent

• College and Career readiness: 17 out of 20 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 3.5 out of 6 points

• Students in advanced placement: 138

• Students with chronic absenteeism: 360

• Students with one or more suspensions: 429

Pine-Strawberry K-8

• 93 points: A

• Enrollment: 128 (82 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic)

• Inexperienced teachers: 5 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 5 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 46 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 54 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in science: 72 percent

• Growth in student scores: 50 out of 50 points

• Acceleration/reading: 8 out of 10 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 3.5 out of 5 points

• Students with chronic absenteeism: 4

Tonto Basin K-8

• 90 points: A

•Enrollment: 69 (90 percent white)

• Inexperienced teachers: 0 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 0 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 47 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 53 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in science: 84 percent

• Growth in student scores: 44 out of 50 points

• Acceleration/reading: 9 out of 10 points

• College and Career readiness: 17 out of 20 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 5 out of 5 points

• Students with chronic absenteeism: 19

Shelby School K-10

• 64 points: C

• Enrollment: 27 (85 percent white)

• Inexperienced teachers: 0 percent

• Teaching outside their field: 0 percent

• Students proficient/highly proficient in English: 30 percent

• Proficient/highly proficient in math: 40 percent

• Growth in student scores: 38 out of 50 points

• Acceleration/reading: 6 out of 10 points

• Bonus points for special education and science: 2 out of 5 points

•Students with chronic absenteeism: 0

Fires have changed - we have to change

Amy Head stood in the smoldering ruins of Paradise, Calif. surrounded by the ashes of 15,000 homes and the fused and blackened remains of 86 residents.

The California fire captain and spokesperson for CalFire had never seen such awful destruction in her 22 years of battling wildfires.

“That fire affected nearly 50,000 people in four to six hours at 6:30 in the morning,” she said. “Never, ever has a fire ever jumped the canyon and gone to Paradise.”

The Camp Fire roared into Paradise moving faster than officials have ever seen or even have a definition to describe.

Paradise Fire Chief David Hawks saw homes and businesses burst into flames as he raced to evacuate residents.

“The fuels were so extremely dry, spot fires started from ember ignition,” he said. “The fire moved 6.7 miles in an hour and a half ... critical fire behavior is defined as a fire moving at three miles per hour ... the smoke column and fire developed by the time you recognized it was in town.”

Yet, looking at the lethal ruins — Head kept thinking about another house, another fire.

Back in 2017, she’d made a similar tour in the aftermath of the 400,000-acre Ranch Fire, which burned through Lake County and Mendocino, consuming 300 houses.

Except for one.

This house stood in a ruined neighborhood, barely touched by the flames.

How did that happen?

“For the past 18 years, since they built their home, the couple prepared for fire,” she said. “They know how many hours exactly that they spent weed whacking, removing brush and cleaning up.”

The owners cleared brush, used fire-resistant materials and maintained their property year after year. It saved their home.

The survival of their house underscored the hard lessons of Arizona fires like Yarnell Hill and Wallow fires: in the new era of megafires — your life may rely on both a wildland-urban interface building code and Firewise property maintenance. As the people of Paradise discovered, a megafire can reach the house next door before you even have time to flee.

The Camp Fire – a tale of pine needles

Hawks, said one thing caused more devastation in the Camp Fire than anything else: Pine needles.

“Basically, it wasn’t the Camp Fire that burned Paradise ... it was the ember storm that started pine needles that had accumulated on the roofs,” he said. “The only people that can control that are the property owners.”

Three things drive fire.

“Fire is driven by three main factors, topography, of which slope is the most dominant; weather, of which wind is the most dominant; and fuels, the dryness of the fuels,” he said. “We hadn’t had rain in Northern California for 210 days. Those three things drove this fire.”

Those conditions fueled the Camp Fire, but the failure of property owners in cleaning up and Firewising also contributed to the devastation.

Not only did property owners not clean pine needles from roofs and gutters, they used landscape bark under trees that easily caught fire.

Paradise has operated a free, grant-supported brush pickup program for the past 14 years. However, Paradise had no way to force property owners to clean up. Instead, the town relied on voluntary efforts. The town and Firewise program hoped education efforts would have inspired people to Firewise.

Clearly, that wasn’t enough.

The extreme behavior of the fire also showed people cannot rely on fire fighters when the ember storm comes.

Head said the Camp Fire that decimated Paradise forced firefighters to focus on saving lives, not homes.

“Everybody wants to feel the fire department is going to save them,” she said. “The reality is that when we have fires of this size and magnitude, we don’t have enough fire engines to put at every home. Instead, we are driving down the mountain with five citizens trying to save their lives.”

In comparison, the home Head visited after the Ranch Fire illustrated homes will survive — if their owners take responsibility.

“They completely survived that fire due to the work they did,” she said. “If they hadn’t done it, that house would have never made it.”

That means not only will the house survive — it can also provide a place to survive the fire if evacuation efforts fail.

WUI building code saves homes, experts say

As more megafires develop, building and maintaining homes to withstand a fire can save both property and lives.

Fire officials at the Camp Fire said only a miracle saved so many of the 45,000 people who fled with minutes to spare. The fire moved faster than any previous fire. As fires become faster and burn hotter, creating safe places where people can ride out the ember storm and even the flaming front will determine the death toll when there isn’t enough time to evacuate.

“We just have to change our thinking,” said Head. “These fires are the new normal. I hate to say that. For the first 15 years of my fire career, you had a fire season that lasted six months. You would hear of a 10,000-acre fire and one home lost. Now you hear about 100,000 acres and hundreds of homes.”

Head said she saw huge businesses burn to the ground during the Santa Rosa Fire.

“Wind and embers were just blowing from one building to another,” she said. “I know that the (Santa Rosa) Safeway and most of those homes probably didn’t have the latest and greatest fire building materials.”

As Hawks raced through Paradise ferrying people to safety from the Camp Fire, he watched as just the ambient heat of buildings on fire started fires next door.

“The fire burned from business to business and home to home transferring fire,” he said.

The embers were relentless.

Last year, Payson considered adopting a wildland-urban interface building code and Firewise brush clearing code, but the council blinked under pressure from townspeople.

Council members said they didn’t want to force people to clean up their lots — and didn’t want to discourage builders from coming to town. They said they didn’t want to reduce the number of trees in town, which give Payson a forested feeling. So they overrode the urgent recommendation of the Payson Fire Department.

As a result, Payson has few of the programs in place that gave the residents of Paradise those precious, extra moments to flee as the fire of their nightmares bore down on their town.

The town is thick with small trees.

Most roofs have a thick layer of pine needles.

Wooden eaves overhang wood piles and brush.

Wooden siding waits to spread the flames from house to house.

From a distance, Paradise seems like the story of a community that ignored the danger of living in the midst of a forest in the era of megafires.

In truth, that’s the story of Payson.

Paradise is the town that saw the danger — but didn’t do enough.

Just ask Amy Head and Chief Hawks — who have spent their whole lives fighting fires, only to stand in the ruins and discover everything has changed.

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Mogollon Moose 3.0 closes its doors suddenly

Surprising residents and diners, the Mogollon Moose 3.0 has closed its doors just a month after moving to a new location despite rave reviews and a packed dining room most afternoons.

The restaurant was just getting established at 512 N. Beeline Highway after moving off Main Street when owner Kristi Church suddenly announced she was closing for a month due to personal issues.

Now, Church says it may be longer than a month and if she does re-open the Moose, it will likely be in a new location.

Gerardo Moceri, who operated an Italian restaurant at the Beeline location for nearly 20 years, is most surprised of all by the closure.

Moceri sold Church the business and the equipment in the restaurant for some $117,000 with Church making a $45,000 down payment. Church agreed to pay the remaining $72,000 off over three years. When he heard Church had sold everything out of the restaurant last week, he was stunned. He went to the restaurant, but said he got few answers. Church is scheduled to pay Moceri an installment later this month.

Moceri worries how she will make future payments if the restaurant is closed and she has no equipment to re-open.

“I don’t know what to say, everything looks like they are done,” he said.

Church said she is “not trying to skip town,” but has some family issues she needs to deal with that demand her immediate attention. Moving the Moose in the matter of a few days was a huge undertaking and while she is grateful for the positive response from the community, she cannot keep the restaurant open while she deals with family health issues.

Church said she understands Moceri is upset, but she plans to pay him back and has been honest with him about why she had to close.

“This is an unfortunate situation,” she said.

Church’s other restaurant meanwhile, the 703 on Main, remains open. Church said she has no plans to close it.

A rumor has swirled that Church closed the Moose in part because she owes back taxes.

During her first year open, Church says her accounting firm did not pay employment taxes. She later found out about the blunder and hired a lawyer. She has since set up an “affordable” payment plan with the IRS and is current now.

Her current accounting firm, Accounting For You, is helping her sort out those issues, but did not have any part in the former firm’s error. Church said she hired Accounting For You because of co-owner Carol Quigley’s reputation for solving accounting issues and added Quigley has been instrumental in getting things straightened out.

On Friday, Jan. 4, Church said she held a meeting with her staff from the Moose and gave them their final paychecks.

“I am a woman of character, maybe I have not always done everything right, but I feel like I am being attacked,” she said of the rumors, including she had not paid staff.

She said she has canceled her lease on the Beeline property.


Payson's new mayor shares his vision with chamber members

Sorry Steven Seagal fans, the Hollywood action movie star of the 1980s and ’90s won’t be Payson’s next police chief.

Payson’s new Mayor Tom Morrissey already asked him if he was interested. Morrissey and the Hollywood action star co-wrote a book together.

“Somebody said right after I got elected that with (Police Chief) Don Engler retiring June 30 that Steven Seagal would be our next police chief,” Morrissey said. “So I asked Steven. Steven doesn’t act. That’s who he is in the movies. So Steven said, in his best Seagal impersonation, ‘I can’t do that.’ But rumors go around. You’re going to hear a lot of rumors; if you hear them come talk to me about them. But Steven will not be our next police chief.”

That was just one of several stories that drew laughter from members of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce during the chamber’s monthly luncheon at the Mazatzal Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

Morrissey also drew big laughs talking about the New Year’s Eve snowstorm.

“Six months ago when I announced my candidacy for mayor, I had no idea that I’d actually get elected,” Morrissey said. “And here I am standing before you and very proud of it. I love this town. Until last week, before the snow fell, I thought this was paradise. I really did. Since then, I feel like Dr. Zhivago (referring to the winter scenes in the David Lean-directed romantic-epic film set in Russia). It’s been a challenge. But I love it here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. My intention is to stay right here in Payson for the rest of my days.”

Morrissey touched on a number of points he plans to focus on during his two-year term.

Among them:

• Fire awareness and prevention

• Greater government transparency

• Listening to resident and business owner’s concerns and their solutions to those problems

• Ending tax increases unless passed by voters

• Working with the Tonto Apache Tribe

• Drug addiction

• Homelessness

He said the threat of a major fire is the biggest challenge Payson faces.

“If we have a major fire, then everything we’re going to talk about today is moot,” he said. “We’re blessed in many ways, but we live in a forest and we have to acknowledge that.

“What can we do about it?”

Morrissey suggested education, preparation and realization.

“If there is a fire, how do you get out of here? How many exits do we have? It’s our job as the town council to let you know if there’s something going on that we have to react to. But it’s your job to try and stay in tune and listen for some of the things that we might try and get to you. I want to see a better system of communication in the town and the town government. We’re gonna work on that.”

He also discussed creating a fire authority with Hellsgate, Houston Mesa and the Payson fire departments.

Whether they go forward with the fire authority or not, he wants to see firefighters get paid more.

“One of the things I want to see happen and happen quickly is pay parity for our firefighters,” he said.

As far as taxes, he understands why the previous administration approved the sales tax increase, acknowledging budget concerns, but said he doesn’t believe in tax increases without voter approval.

“How do you feel about the food tax?” he said. “I don’t like it ... It’s a cruel tax.”

He also talked about the concerns of business owners.

“Do you feel you’re being treated fairly?” he asked. “You are the bloodline of the town. You have to be supported.”

He said transparency leads to trust.

“I talked to the members of the Tonto Apache Tribal Council today and I told them, ‘Look in my eyes. Don’t listen to what I’m saying, watch what I do.’”

As for the future projects, Morrissey said they should fit into the western theme of the area.

He said he’s “very encouraged” that a solution to the multiple internet outages Rim Country residents have experience over the past few years may be coming soon.

“I feel like it’s not too far (off),” he said. “We need redundant internet. The town council can’t really do anything about that, but we can put pressure where it needs to be.”

He also talked about two major problems Payson is dealing with — drug addiction and homelessness. He said he planned to announce a program to deal with those issues soon.

Contact the reporter at

Jeannie Herford photo  

Tom Morrissey