Hour of Code event excites and engages students

Two fourth-grade students laugh working on the Hour of Code computer game in Terry Ramirez’s class.

Big classes.

No new curriculum.

Not much new technology.

Not much progress on millions in long, overdue capital needs.

Not much change in a fleet of aging, breakdown-prone buses.

The Payson School Board’s recent budget briefing underscored the trade-offs if the board puts more money into pay raises in a state with some of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation.

The three new board members also got a crash course in a school budget controlled by the state and subject to last-minute mandates and cuts.

The board made pay raises and employee benefits its top priority — which will cost about $1 million.

And that means cuts in other areas, like curriculum, transportation, capital needs, technology and class sizes.

But with state and federal budgets and next year’s enrollment all in flux, the board must often stand on the edge of the fiscal cliff, take a deep breath and jump — all the while hoping there’s still enough water down there to break their fall.

Class sizes, technology and building repair provided the three key areas that suffered.

The district will reduce its teacher ranks by two positions, relying on attrition rather than layoffs. The reductions stem from a small enrollment decline, focused mostly on Julia Randall Elementary School. At least, that’s the projection. No one knows for sure how many kids will actually show up in the fall.

Not replacing two teachers will save $120,000 in salaries and benefits. In theory, the district could reduce class sizes by keeping those positions filled. Arizona has among the highest class sizes in the country, although research shows large classes decrease student achievement and affect teacher morale and retention. The real benefits of small classes show up at around 17 per class, especially in elementary school grades.

Now, the student-teacher ratio in Payson stands at:

20 in kindergarten,

25 in first grade,

27 in second-third grade,

29 in fourth-fifth grade,

30 in sixth-eighth grade

32 in ninth-12th grade.

The district has about 120 teachers. Lowering overall average class sizes from about 28 to about 20 would therefore require about 30-35 more teachers at a cost of $2 million. Even then, the district doesn’t have enough elementary school classrooms to accommodate the smaller classes, thanks to the sale of Frontier Elementary.

Some of the other key trade-offs revealed in the budget discussion include:

Technology needs

Payson has won recognition from Google and elsewhere for its embrace of technology, especially the use of Chromebooks to both support creative lessons plans and get up-to-date curriculum.

However, the district’s Chromebooks will be out of date before June of 2020, said director of technology Vickie Andrews. That’s when Google will stop providing support for the low-end computers, which rely heavily on programming and updates over the internet. In years past, hardware lasted for 5-10 years, she noted. These days, computers and other devices rely on constant software and operating system updates — so they end up becoming outdated in about five years — when the technology companies stop providing updates and support.

Worse yet, the district’s computer servers will suffer the same fate, with half of the servers reaching “end of life” in software updates and support this year.

The district will therefore need about $225,000 to replace the Chromebooks and about $150,000 to replace the servers — if not this year, then next year. But the budget includes just $50,000 for technology.

Facilities planning

A consultant’s report recently detailed $13 million in needed repairs and upgrades — including critical security features.

However, the budget includes just $150,000 for capital needs, most of that from the last of the money the district got from selling Frontier Elementary School.

Gov. Doug Ducey has promised to include new money for capital funding. Lawmakers have refused to fund a court-ordered capital funding system since the recession.

Superintendent Greg Wyman said, “The report said we should spend $5 million, but all we have is $150,000. In the meantime we’ll take the highest priority and grab everything we can to fix what we can. This is not Payson alone. There is going to be a crisis in the fixing of facilities across the state of Arizona.”

Transportation

The district has snagged a $110,000 state grant to help pay for a new, $180,000, 82-student bus. That leaves the district with seven of the 15 buses in its fleet with more than $200,000 miles on the odometer. The district has been struggling to replace both the full-sized, $180,000 school buses and smaller, $80,000 activity buses, but continues to fall behind. The buses constantly break down, often stranding students until other buses can be rerouted to pick them up, staff says.

Board member Barbara Underwood pushed for adding $100,000 to the transportation budget to get at least a new activity bus. Wyman said the money would have to come from the dwindling, federal “forest fees” account, although the district has no idea whether the federal government will renew funding this year.

Kathie Manning, the district’s director of business services, did suggest that if the state resumes regular funding for capital needs, the district could take the risk of leasing buses, rather than paying for new buses up front.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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