Weeds are a big problem for the Payson Unified School District.
In fact, on some campuses the weeds have gotten tall enough to hide a toddler, school officials told the Payson School Board this week in pressing to add a worker to the maintenance staff.
But the board balked at the request — deciding to wait until after the Nov. 4 school budget override election. If voters reject the override, the district will have to phase in $1.3 million in cuts over the next three years. In that case, the district will have lots bigger problems than weeds.
The board scheduled a budget-based special meeting after the election to take up the topic of weeds, crumbling infrastructure and other mounting maintenance problems. The board members recently took a facilities tour to get a good look at the condition of the four campuses. Last year, a consultant tallied up about $12 million in new and deferred capital improvement needs — but the district has only about $500,000 a year to spend on improvements.
“One thing we have all noticed are the weeds,” said Superintendent Stan Rentz. “It’s embarrassing to take people around to see our campuses — it just looks bad.”
“I agree — it does not show pride in our schools,” said board president Barbara Underwood.
So the administration asked the board to take $48,000 out of the $165,000 operations contingency fund to hire another groundskeeper. About 30 percent of that money would go to cover the benefits for the position.
In addition, the administration wanted to pay a contractor $37,000 to use chemical weed killers on all four campuses. The district spent a year trying to find a qualified contractor who used chemicals safe for a school campus. The contract would provide weed spraying twice a year — but someone would still have to go dig up the dead weeds.
The board had two problems with those requests.
First, the district may have to figure out how to cut $400,000 each year for the next three years if voters reject the override extension. If the district has to cut its teaching staff by 10 or 20 percent, the district can’t be hiring someone to pull the weeds.
Second, the board wants to come up with an overall facilities maintenance plan, rather than attacking the problems one weed patch at a time.
Board member Joanne Conlin agreed the weeds look bad, but “when we did the tour, we talked about a facilities management plan. Before we throw money at anything, we need to make sure it’s spent properly. Maybe it would be cheaper to hire a contractor,” to periodically de-weed the district.
Director of Maintenance and Transportation Brent Bailey said the district urgently needs another worker on the grounds crew — and not just for the weeds. For instance, he said every week it takes four people half a day to repaint the football field between games. So the district electrician and plumber both end up painting the gridiron.
The problem has become acute because one of the two grounds maintenance workers has been out on leave with an employee-comp injury since February. Efforts to find someone on a temporary basis have proved futile.
The district hasn’t sprayed pre-emergent or herbicides on the weeds for at least three years, said Bailey.
“The schools have a lot of problems inside and out,” said Conlin. “But you also go into a bathroom and it reeks. I just want to take a look at the whole picture.”
The district has a $500,000 reserve fund for capital needs and a $165,000 reserve fund for operational needs and can move money from one account to another to cover unanticipated needs. However, that’s a slender, 3.5 percent reserve for a $19 million operations and maintenance budget — especially given the state of the district’s facilities.
A decade ago, courts ruled the reliance on local property taxes to pay for capital needs had created an unconstitutional difference in per-student spending between rich and poor districts. The Arizona Legislature then set up the School Facilities Board to fund capital improvements statewide. However, lawmakers never fully funded the SFB. The backlog now amounts to billions statewide, including $12 million in Payson. Lawmakers boosted funding this year and Payson landed $500,000 in state funding to repair leaking roofs on several high school buildings.
The board told administrators to delay a response on the weed-spraying contract and the added position until after voters decide on the override and the district gets final numbers on state funding for the year. After years of decline, Payson added about 160 students this year, which should increase the money it gets from the state.
Nonetheless, Underwood said the weed problem has become a crisis. “The weeds by the buses are higher than our students,” she said.