Yarnell school struggles to survive

YARNELL - Things aren't looking good for the Yarnell Elementary School District.

A drop in enrollment and a hit in property values following last year's Yarnell Hill fire have helped create a $150,000 deficit for the district's only institution, Model Creek School, according to Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter.

The school currently employs four teachers, one administrator and eight staff members. Six of the 13 total employees are part-time. About 30 students are currently enrolled in grades kindergarten through 8th grade. Model Creek School is located at 18192 Hays Ranch Road in Peeples Valley.

Carter said district staff predicted their current financial deficit last year during the Yarnell Hill fire, which took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots and displaced a number of Yarnell residents.

"Before the fire was all the way contained we told people that Yarnell was going to have this problem," Carter said. "Two things happen in a situation like this. Property values go down and people leave the area. Both of those things have happened."

Property values dropped by about $17 million, he added, and enrollment at the Model Creek School dropped by about 18 students last year, nearly half the school's total student body.

High School-aged students are transported to either the Prescott Unified School District or to the Wickenburg Unified School District.

The Yarnell District governing board this month approved a $2 tax rate increase for every home assessed at $100,000, according to Carter, to help offset some of their losses, which included a cut in state funding due to smaller enrollment numbers.

"Because of some internal review of what they wanted to do, and what they could do, and because their staff and their administrator were willing to take substantial cuts and consolidate positions, they were able to get it down, but $2 is still a substantial jump to the tax rate," Carter said.

Yarnell Elementary School District Superintendent and school Principal Fred Garnett said enrollment played a large factor in determining the school's budget for the upcoming school year.

"Because of the fire parents lost their jobs. Five kids had homes burned right to the ground. Three of those left and two stayed," Garnett said. "We were about $100,000 short in meeting our budget."

Garnett worked to reduce the budget by more than $99,000 and the school board agreed to fund the school for another year. Besides cuts to salaries and employee hours, cutbacks include transportation, art, music and physical education, as well as part of their sports program.

The small district is currently working on one-year, three-year and five-year plans, including discussions on shifting to a four-day school schedule.

"That would save us approximately 20 percent on our budget overall," Garnett said.

Low enrollment numbers, meanwhile, are expected to continue through next year, Carter said.

While the idea of closing the school was raised as an option, Carter said, by law, the district could not vote to close the school.

"We talked about all of those options and the board considered those options," Carter said. "You can look at consolidation, you can look at unification, and you can look at lapsing the district. All of those things have positives and negatives. There were people who said to close the school and eliminate the district. You can't do that under law. We no longer have unorganized territory, so everyone lives within a school district."

Despite the tax rate increase, the school's budget remains tight and is likely to remain that way, he added. Those interested in helping offset costs at the school, Carter said, can make tax-deductible donations.

Donations, made payable to the Yarnell Elementary School District #52, can be sent to Yavapai County School Superintendent's Office at 2970 Centerpointe East Drive, Prescott, Ariz. 86301. Visit the Yarnell district website at www.modelcreekschool.org for more information on tax-deductible donations.

Follow reporter Patrick Whitehurst on Twitter @pwdcourier

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