First, the good news.
Payson schools picked up an extra 141 students this year — the first increase in years of steady decline. School officials say the roughly 5 percent increase could bring an additional $700,000 in state funding if enrollment doesn’t fall in the next 90 days.
And now the bad news.
The district’s suddenly bulging at the seams in some grade levels and doesn’t have enough teachers — which means class sizes will swell beyond more than 30 per classroom in many grades.
The Payson School Board received the news with a mixture of joy and anxiety at the Monday night meeting.
The board quickly authorized the district to hire three more teachers and a teacher’s aide to cope with the influx of students, although most teachers weeks ago accepted contracts throughout the state. If the district can find those teachers and aides, it would use about $241,000 of the projected $700,000 windfall from the rise in enrollment.
“It’s going to be a challenge to find quality teachers at this time of year,” especially in the light of a worsening, statewide teacher shortage, said Superintendent Stan Rentz. “We don’t want to just hire warm bodies — but I would like to see what’s out there.”
Even with those new teachers, class sizes in many cases will swell above the targeted ranges — in a state that already has on average the largest class sizes in the nation.
“I’m happy to see the big numbers,” said board president Barbara Underwood, “but I also want to make sure that we have everything we need.”
Administrators said they weren’t sure how to account for the increase, after years of decline. Some of the increase might reflect the closure of the small Shelby charter school in Christopher Creek. Some might stem from the return of some home-schooled students. But the rise most likely stems largely from the improving Rim Country economy.
The enrollment increase will affect every campus in the district. Payson Elementary School gained 46; Julia Randall Elementary gained 21; the middle school gained 24; and the high school gained 50.
Rentz proposed hiring one new teacher at each at JRE, RCMS and the high school. However, he recommended hiring a paraprofessional to help in all the classrooms at Payson Elementary School — partly because the campus doesn’t have room to add another classroom.
The surge in enrollment represents a sharp turnaround from the past several years, during which enrollment has fallen by 20 to 50 students almost every fall. The district now for the first time will benefit from the state’s shift to current-year funding, which means state payments to districts fluctuates with the enrollment. This benefits growing districts and charters, but has inflicted financial pain on districts with shrinking enrollment — like Payson has been for most of the past decade.
During the recession, the district locked itself into a system that requires students to move from one campus to another every couple of years when it sold Frontier Elementary School to the Payson Christian School. As a result, K-2 students are concentrated at PES, which has barely enough room for all three grade levels. This has forced the district to increase elementary class sizes, despite research showing students do much better in smaller classes at the elementary school level.
Second-grade class sizes will likely grow to about 30, compared to 27 last year and a goal of about 24. Kindergarten class sizes will likely grow to about 22.
“We’re busting at the seams at PES,” said Principal Linda Scoville. “There’s hardly any room for any movement — but the teachers are doing a great job.”
The school is also dealing with the impact of an unusually large number of children with disabilities, many of whom must function in the now-larger class sizes. Administrators hope hiring a paraprofessional to help the teachers will cushion the impact.
Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White commented, “We’d like to try to get a sixth-grade teacher to make classes smaller. We’ve got 35 and 36 per class.”
Middle school is a challenging transition for many students, especially for sixth-graders used to an elementary school setting when they have a single teacher all day long. Many studies show students can develop problems in middle school if they can’t make the shift to having four to six different teachers and so many new faces in class.
Underwood commented, “I just want to make sure if we need another aide or whatever to help, that we are asking for what we need here. I heard there are issues because we have so many kids.”