Payson’s got one big believer in its growth potential.
The Payson Unified School District.
So at its last meeting, the Payson school board approved an optimistic prediction that the districts will grow by 5% each year for the next decade.
At first blush — this seems to put the school board in the cockeyed optimist category.
After all, the 2020 Census found Payson has grown not a whit in the past decade — which included the long, slow recovery from a debilitating recession, a little happy flurry of growth and then a pandemic. In that same period, the Payson school district’s enrollment has suffered a slow decline.
After state budget cuts clobbered schools in the wake of the 2008 recession, Payson sold off Frontier Elementary School for enough cash to keep the roofs from leaking and the holes in the wall patched at the four remaining campuses.
But hey — that’s all behind us now, suggested District Finance Director Kathie Manning, in presenting growth projections for the upcoming decade.
She based her projection on units in the development pipeline in Payson, which include at least nine substantial developments.
Before the 2008 recession, Payson was building about 300 new homes per year. But after the housing crash, the town approved just 10 to 30 homes annually for years on end. After conversations with the town, Manning predicted that Payson will add 55 units this year, 366 next year, 2,013 units in 2023 and 185 in 2024.
“The reason we feel comfortable doing that is we met with the Town of Payson and they actually pulled a development timeline — with the number of units completed each year. Based on the large increase in development, we feel that 5% is a good projection for ADA (average daily attendance).”
Then again, to understand the projection — you’ve got to understand the arcane, bewildering, high-stakes system for funding capital improvements at school districts in Arizona.
The state keeps rigid control over school finance — including money to add classrooms or repair existing facilities. Judges ordered the state to assume control of school capital funding after a lawsuit demonstrated that property-tax-rich districts like Scottsdale had far more money to spend on facilities than property-tax-poor rural districts like Payson.
The legislature agreed under protest to take over responsibility for most school capital needs. But for years the state provided only about 20% of the money needed for schools to keep up with either growth or maintenance. As a result, the scramble to convince the Arizona School Facilities Board to fund school improvements has become an art form, with elements of absurdism.
And that’s one reason Manning said the board should settle on a projected 5% growth rate. The projection holds the key to winning money from the state to upgrade school facilities — and keep up with any growth at all. Since it takes years to get approval and add classrooms, the district has to polish up its crystal ball or face potential fiscal disaster — or debilitating overcrowding.
“As long as our projections show we’ll be at or over capacity within four years, we’ll be on the SFB list that we’ll need new facilities,” said Manning.
The situation is particularly acute in Payson, thanks to the sale of Frontier. The decision forced the district to cram all its elementary school students into the undersized Payson Elementary School and Julia Randall Elementary School. This had all kinds of consequences.
For starters, the two campuses barely had enough classrooms for the students. As a result, despite national research showing elementary school students do much better in class sizes under 18, the elementary schools often have 24 to 28 students per classroom.
In addition, the district had to break up the grades. So PES has grades K, first and second. Julia Randall has grades four, five and six. This means students who stay in the district for their whole careers change campuses four times — with a whole new set of teachers and administrators each time they move. Moreover, sometimes the district has to split up grade levels — with some second grade classes at PES and some at JRE.
Board member Barbara Underwood — a veteran when it comes to decoding the state funding riddle, wondered if the district should continue to do such a good job of juggling students to reduce overcrowding. “By moving some second grade classes to JRE, is that a disadvantage to PES (in getting money to add classrooms)? Did we hurt ourselves by moving kids there and showing our overload capacity?”
But Manning said it wouldn’t hurt. “They look at it by grade level — not by school.”
“Our goal is to trigger SFB,” said Superintendent Linda Gibson.
So the enrollment projections become critical in prying money out of the school facilities board to add classroom space to the overcrowded elementary school campuses.
The board-approved projections suggest that elementary school enrollment will increase from 960 now to 1,490 by fiscal year 2031. Middle school enrollment is projected to grow from 573 now to 889 in FY 31. High school enrollment will grow from 833 to 1,293.
“Due the different grade configuration,” wrote Manning in the recommendation to the board, “it is difficult to predict the number of students when the district is ‘built out.’ For example, PES was over capacity due to the influx of students in the K-2 grade configuration. We moved two grade classes to JRE to ensure balanced capacity. Due to COVID, 2019-20 and 2020-21 are believed to be anomalies and skew projections.”