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Rural schools also challenged by education budget cutbacks
As Arizona lawmakers work on the state budget, school districts are trying to plan their budgets for next school year. For rural districts, that challenge is magnified.
Off of Interstate 8, about an hour east of Yuma, is the Hyder Elementary School District. The building sits on East 64th Avenue. Scan the north side of the highway, and the school district buildings are the only structures around as far as the eyes can see.
Hyder is the smallest K-8 school district in Yuma County. Its funding is relatively small compared to big city school districts.
Hyder’s total annual budget is about $1.1 million. Less than $40,000 of that comes from property taxes. It is a poor district in a farming region.
Students are scattered across a geographic area the size of Los Angeles. That means the district’s four school buses travel 430 miles of paved and dirt roads each day to pick-up and drop off all of its students.
"We’re different. We’re very unique," Pat Koury, the Hyder School District superintendent said.
Koury has been its leader for nearly 25 years. When asked to describe his district, he smiles and highlights its biggest achievement.
" It’s kind of amazing that we’re the highest poverty district. 90-something percent Hispanic," Koury said. "Almost all of our kids come not speaking English; most of our parents do not speak English, and we got an A, which you’re not gonna find that too often."
An A- as in the fifth-highest performing school district in Arizona during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the state Department of Education. That means most or all of its 114 students passed the AIMS test, and the district continues to improve its academics year over year. Yet, this success, Koury said, comes with a lot of budget juggling.
"We haven’t been able to give a pay raise for seven years, and as you cut them, and cut them and cut them, they just suck it up and do more," Koury said.
Nic Clement is a Northern Arizona University professor and has been a school superintendent in Tucson.
"People don’t think about the fact that in rural areas, it’s really a huge challenge to attract and retain the highly qualified teacher, the added cost of transportation and supervision of students on those buses and to provide the specialized programs," Clement said.
According to a federal report, nearly half of all school districts and about one third of all public schools are located in rural areas, and they educate about 20 percent of the nation’s students.
Hilary Misner is a dean at the ASU Fulton Teacher’s College.
"Really what it takes to develop an effective elementary school in a community fostered and supported by community partnerships where all of those partnerships aren’t necessarily present in a rural community," Misner said.
Hyder’s superintendent said the district is fortunate, because it has that support from a solar company and county and social agencies. Because of that, the school has kept its buses running, acquired computers, provided meals for students and made valuable services available to the region.
"A lot of time you can come here and see a doctor. The county library is here. Any social functions or whatever go on here, so there is a ownership of the community in the school," Koury said.
This low income community has supported district overrides for three decades, providing $132,000 in additional funding in last year’s budget.
"Money is the key to a lot of things. You’re not gonna have a great military without spending money on defense and you’re not gonna have great schools without spending money on school," Koury said.
Hyder School District is the only district in Yuma that has passed an education override. It is also the only high-performing school district in the county.