JRE merry go round

Merry-go-rounds at school are much safer than they used to be.

Wow.

What a cliff-hanger.

The Payson Unified School District’s budget this year reads like a dime store thriller — with triumph snatched from the jaws of disaster.

Specifically, when the school board last June adopted this year’s budget, the district had lost 400 students to the pandemic chaos and fiscal disaster loomed come the start of the new year. So the board adopted a budget based on the assumption that none of the students who vanished in the face of the pandemic would return.

Fortunately, an influx of millions in federal help averted wrenching layoffs of teachers to adjust to the projected loss of 400 students.

Well, guess what?

About 300 of those 400 missing students showed up for classes in August after all.

As a result, the district this year will get some $2 million more enrollment-based money from the state than the board expected when adopting the budget back in June. Moreover, the increased enrollment means the district won’t have to use all that federal COVID money just to stay afloat — which means the district can now start figuring out how to spend that federal money over the next three years to close gaps, boost student achievement and cope with the ongoing disruption of the pandemic.

Finance Director Kathie Manning on Monday had the happy task of seeking board approval to increase the budget by $1.9 million, with most of the added money going into the contingency funds.

The board will have another meeting in two weeks to talk about how to spend some $4.7 million in federal COVID relief money over the next two years. Federal money this year paid for about eight positions, including a brand new social worker. That sounds like a satisfying and simple task — but the trick lies in spending the money in a way that doesn’t create a crisis when the money runs out in two years.

Manning’s PowerPoint presentation on Monday referred to the deadline for spending the federal money as “the cliff.”

But in the meantime, the picture for fiscal 2020-21 has brightened considerably.

The district so far has gained 230 regular students and 30 special needs students compared to the enrollment when the distance-learning semester ended last May. This enrollment increase had a ripple effect on various school sites, contingency and operations budgets.

The district has an operating contingency fund now of about $1.2 million. That’s not a big cushion for a roughly $20 million budget, but it’s a big improvement over some recent years.

The district also now has $1.8 million in its capital contingency, which comes on top of two years in which the district finagled a decent amount of money from the state’s school facilities board for things like fixing leaky roofs and changing the drainage at the high school to avoid flooding assorted buildings in a heavy rain. The district hired a consultant several years ago who put the backlog of capital needs at $12 million, stemming from nearly a decade in which the legislature refused to fully fund school building and maintenance needs. The most recent increase in Payson’s capital budget includes $125,000 to the facilities plan budget to keep school safety projects moving forward.

The district recently hired a different consultant to assess school safety needs — the kinds of things that could keep someone with a gun from walking onto campus and creating mayhem. That includes better fencing, door locks and secure front-desk entry areas.

The district got a scare recently when high school principal Jeff Simon working on the weekend found himself confronted by an armed man wandering around inside the building. The man claimed he was a police officer. Simon played it cool, but immediately called the real police after the guy left. The intruder was later arrested and charged with a host of crimes, including impersonating a police officer.

The consultant hired to assess the vulnerabilities of the various campuses issued a boiler plate report that listed a lot of expensive looking changes — but then abandoned the job before producing a cost estimate. The district’s still assessing its needs.

Fortunately, the enrollment increase will generate enough money to handle some big upcoming expenses. The district will likely need $500,000 per year for the next couple of years to adopt new textbooks in English, math, science and social studies. Many of the textbooks have been used and abused for years beyond the expected replacement date. The district hopes to get back on track by adopting one new, districtwide set of textbooks in each of the four areas over the next four years.

At this point, the district’s hoping the roughly 100 students who haven’t yet returned will show up once the threat of the pandemic has ebbed — which probably won’t happen until a significant percentage of parents decide to get their children vaccinated. The federal Food and Drug Administration has approved vaccines for students aged 12 to 18 and is expected to approve the shots for children 5 to 12 in the next few weeks.

The district has had far more COVID cases on campus this semester than last semester, thanks in part to a full return to in-person classes combined with a state law preventing the school board from either requiring masks on campus or requiring employees to get vaccinated.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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