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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