Advocates for a ballot measure to extend the Payson Unified School District’s $1.4 million budget override took their case to the Payson Tea Party last week, seeking their support.
Superintendent Stan Rentz, Chief Financial Officer Kathie Manning and real estate agent and former board member Rory Huff made a case for the override, which voters will either extend or reject in November.
Huff said, “I raised both my kids here. They were both very successful in this school district. You can’t imagine the kids who have become doctors and lawyers and nurses out of this school system. We have Flinn scholars and kids in the honors program at ASU. As a Realtor, one thing I see is that for this community to grow and to get people to move here — we have to have good schools.”
Manning said, “100 percent of the money from the override goes into the classroom, to pay teacher salaries to keep class sizes down.” She said the override also pays teacher salaries for electives vital to students, including music, art, drama and physical education.
The largely retired audience of staunch conservatives produced some confrontational questions. Various attendees complained about young people who can’t make change at the store, “pornographic” sex education, bus drivers who drink too much and the impact of “taking Jesus Christ” out of schools. However, the school advocates received a mostly friendly reception, with questions about the fine points of the extra property tax levy. The tax generates about $87 for a $300,000 home (with a $150,000 assessed value). That amounts to about $7 a month for the average home in Payson.
A yes vote would extend the tax first put in place in 2010, so it wouldn’t change the tax bill going forward. A no vote would knock $87 off the tax bill for an average home in the district’s attendance area — which includes Star Valley and many unincorporated areas. State law requires the district to get voter approval every four years to keep the override in place.
If voters reject the extension, the district would cut $450,000 from the budget in each of the next three years, until the total cuts reached about $1.4 million. That amounts to 10 percent of the $14 million operations and maintenance budget. The district can ask voters to reconsider during the three-year phase-out period in case of a no vote.
Elimination of the override would not affect the separate levy for bonds issued in 2007 to make capital improvements at Julia Randall Elementary School, the high school and the middle school. The tax to repay that bond issue expires in 2028, said Manning.
If voters reject the extension, the district will have to cut salaries or staffing by 10 percent, which could amount to 20 teaching positions. However, the board doesn’t have to make the cuts in the areas listed when the override was last extended.
“Are we legally obligated to cut those programs (if the override fails), no. But we probably will be looking at those exact programs because it’s what we promised the voters,” said Manning.
The advocates then faced a series of sometimes harsh questions from listeners already unhappy with public schools.
One listener said, “Why should we pay any more if our kids are not learning anything? President Obama had one of the most disastrous programs he pushed on the schools. I don’t know what the name of that policy was, but it was a dumbing down of our education system of our math and reading and arithmetic. These kids don’t know how to make change. Do we have single-sex bathrooms and sex education?”
The question was an apparent reference to No Child Left Behind, which provided schools with millions of dollars to help adopt national standards for English, math and science. Arizona adopted its own, related set of standards in the form of AzMERIT testing, which is a grade-by-grade testing system. The standards were more rigorous and focused on critical thinking skills than the previous, Arizona-only AIMS test.
“There are a lot of things that parents should be teaching that they’re not teaching,” said Huff, in response to the topic of sex education.
“And you know why — both parents are working,” said the challenger.
In addition, an increasing number of children live in single-parent households. In Payson, many children are also living with grandparents or other relatives.
“The schools are almost being asked to raise these kids,” said Huff. “Back when we were in school, we had two-parent families.”
Another questioner said, the schools went wrong “when they took the Bible and Jesus Christ out of school in the ’50s and ’60s.”
But Huff countered that no matter what other changes have taken place, money matters. Arizona has one of the worst-funded public school systems in the country — with per-student spending roughly 50 percent below the national average. “I’m telling you money helps. It would help to have new buses. It would help if they ran. Money is extremely important to education. These people do more with less than any group I’ve ever seen.”
Manning said the efforts to adopt national academic standards to improve critical thinking skills has been mostly paid for by the federal government — not override money. “I believe we have a quality school system in Payson and I’m proud of that. I was looking at some statistics today, and seven out of nine grades tested in language arts exceed the state average — I’m proud of that.”
“What’s language arts?” asked someone.
“English,” she said.
“Well, why don’t they say that?” asked the listener.
“Money doesn’t solve all the problems,” said Manning, “but money supports these programs. If we want our children exposed to technology programs, music programs, physical education — that’s what it takes to continue these programs.”
Another listener responded to the complaints about the Bible in school. “Keeping money away isn’t going to bring the Bible back to schools. We can’t blame you people for taking the Bible out of the classroom. You can blame the communists, who are chipping away at our country.”
“I’m not blaming them. I want to know if they want more money to push this Common Core agenda.”
This prompted a longtime teacher in the audience to rise to the defense of students and academic standards. “I was in the classroom for 27 years. I know all about Common Core standards. But those standards did not dumb anything down. They increased the rigor of our curriculum. Grade level standards became much more difficult. What used to be first grade is now taught in kindergarten. There is no dumbing down — I guarantee it. If you think kids are not learning in this district, I’d love to visit with you.”
Shirley Dye, a former Payson Tea Party president and former school board member, said, “A lot of these kids if they only had math and English and science and a little bit of history — it would be a drag. But kids come to school and get excited because they get to do sports and drama and art and music.”
Audience member Payson Councilor Jim Ferris said the financial problems schools face in Payson stem from the amount of federal land in the district.
“With all this federal land we have, they’re not paying for schools. But to me, it’s the home, it’s the parents. What I blame the school for is they worry more about their self-esteem than their self-control — their feelings instead of their behavior. We need to tell them, get over these destructive feelings. When you have kids who are hostile to the education process, you can get them out of the classroom. I don’t care what you do with them.”
Manning said she had just learned that Congress will reauthorize the forest fees program, which will provide Payson with between $250,000 and $350,000 annually for the next 10 years. The program supports rural schools with a lot of federal land in their boundaries.
Rentz said he would make sure disruptive students don’t remain in classrooms. “I have very high expectations for our kids to behave properly. We’re not going to let them get in the way of someone else who wants to be in that school and get an education. I hear people say that students have changed — but it’s parents who have changed and the way they’re raising their children. We have them eight hours a day and we’re going to do our very best.”
The next set of questions sent the discussion spinning off into sex education. One listener said she’s working with state Sen. Sylvia Allen to keep a sex education program supported by state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Hoffman out of public schools. “It’s a porno book,” she said. “If they found it in your car, they’d arrest you for pornography.”
Dye responded that the district does have a health program and includes discussion of some issues related to sexuality. “I was on the board when we authorized it. It’s nothing like the book that’s being promoted.”
One listener complained, “We didn’t have sex education and we all turned out fine.”
“Some might argue with that,” laughed another listener.
Huff responded to the wide-ranging complaints. “We’d all like to go back to a one-room schoolhouse where we walked uphill both ways — but that’s not the future. The curriculum these kids have is unbelievable. A large percentage of our kids want to come back. The Class of 2008 won a state championship (in football) — now 80 percent of that team is back in Payson. None of us like to pay taxes, but it’s a necessary evil — I guarantee you. The school district is not wasting a dime.
“You come in as a school board member and you think you’re going to change the world, but then you realize the facts of life: They’re doing everything they can with what they have. If this was a business, it would shut down — it’s so underfunded.”
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