The Payson school board this week balked at plans to hire a new registrar to handle enrollment at all five district campuses.
The issue provoked a rare split vote on the board, with the majority asking for more detail on the plan to centralize registration and academic scheduling in the district office rather than at each campus.
“Wow,” said board president Joanne Conlin when the vote came out 3-2, “this doesn’t happen very often.”
Board member Barbara Underwood just shook her head. She’s on the Payson Town Council, where 3-2 votes are a way of life.
But there was less division than the vote may have suggested, since everyone on the board majority — Conlin, Underwood and Jolynn Schinstock — agreed that shifting to a single registrar in the central office relying heavily on an online system will streamline efforts and make the sometimes confusing process easier on parents — especially for families with kids attending different schools.
The board majority just wanted a better grasp on the ripple effects of adding a new, central office position — especially on the people now handling registration at each of the campuses.
The board’s balk probably means the district will hire a district registrar at the end of the school year instead of in January in the middle of the school year, as proposed by Superintendent Linda Gibson.
Conlin said she wanted to see a more detailed proposal, to avoid problems down the road. She cited the recent example of the decision to close the district’s warehouse and rely on just-in-time online ordering of supplies and equipment. The district had to reverse that decision when problems with keeping all the campuses supplied emerged.
“Going back to the whole warehouse thing,” said Conlin, “where it seemed like a good idea and then it wasn’t. What’s it going to look like? We need to look at the whole picture. If we’re taking responsibility away from the people at the school site, would they still be at the level they’re at? I just don’t feel we have the whole picture to make a good decision.”
Currently, the high school and middle school each have a person who spends nearly full time handling student enrollment, going over the transcripts of students who transfer into the district and making sure that all the classes students need to get into college show up correctly on their transcript. Payson Elementary School, Julia Randall Elementary School and the district’s online program have administrative assistants who also handle registration tasks.
Superintendent Gibson said the principals had all favored hiring a central registrar in January to give that person time to overhaul the system and integrate the five campuses effectively before the end of the school year.
“The process of enrollment now takes place in the spring, not at the start of the school year,” said Gibson.
Moreover, the district has received more than $4 million in federal pandemic funding, which means it can easily afford to add the position now — although the district has to spend all the extra federal money in the next three years.
That idea also unsettled Conlin, who said the district should avoid using pandemic money for the salaries of longtime positions, since it runs out in 2024.
However, Finance Director Kathie Manning said the rules on spending the federal grant money are flexible. The district has shuffled money around to take advantage of that flexibility. For instance, the district’s using the grant money for operating expense while shifting some $3 million to reserves — especially capital reserves.
In part, that’s because if the district buys capital items with federal money, it creates a much more burdensome paper trail when it eventually comes time to stop using or sell as surplus a capital item.
Manning said, “We have to be mindful of what qualifies for the grant. If we find an expense that can temporarily work there — we can use that money and move it into the plan — as long as we are keeping track of that adjustment. A lot of pieces that have to be balanced.”
Gibson said the big jump in enrollment this year that erased the pandemic decline ensures the district will have money in the operating budget to still fund the registrar position when the pandemic grant money runs out.
“Maybe,” said Conlin. “We still have to keep the student-teacher ratio if enrollment does go down. That’s the priority. No matter what we do, it’s got to be about the child and making sure that they are getting the education that they need to be successful in life.
“I don’t want to choose something now that is going to risk that later. Every year it’s a struggle for maintenance and operation money — truly a struggle. And we know the state isn’t going to give us more money.”
Gibson said, “We’re looking at the long term to afford these positions. You’re right. The last thing we want to do is do wrong by an individual — much less wrong by the district.”
She stressed that a central system will not only free up people at each campus for other tasks, it will help streamline the process for parents. Moreover, the district’s current software system was designed for a central registrar and the district has had to develop various work-arounds to break registration up by campus.
“Speaking to our families, I’m aware of their frustration with the current system,” said Gibson.
“I’ve had some frustration myself, dealing with the system for my kids,” said board member Audrey Hogue.
Nonetheless, Underwood said she wanted more information before approving the proposal — especially when it would involve a mid-year hire. She said she wanted to make sure that current employees could apply for the position.
Board member Schinstock said the proposal was a great idea — but premature. “
“I do agree that streamlining the registration process is a great idea. I believe that when you streamline something, but I don’t understand how we can go from all those positions at the site to streamlining and how we can support another full-time position without understanding where the efficiencies are.”
In the end, Underwood, Schinstock and Conlin voted to table the recommendation until the administration can present more details. The idea could come back in December or may become part of the budget for the 2021-22 school year, which the district typically adopts in May.
Hogue and board member Michell Marinelli voted against the motion to table the idea because they favored going ahead with Gibson’s recommendation.