More than 100 people gathered Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8 and 9, at Beaver Creek School in Rimrock to discuss strengthening education in the Verde Valley.
People from all walks of life attended: Current and former educators, as well as business, political and community leaders from throughout the area. The Verde Valley Forum for Public Affairs hosted the event, along with Arizona Town Hall moderating.
Opening events Friday night included dinner, an overview of the Arizona Town Hall process and a presentation by Lattie Coor, chairman and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona and former president of Arizona State University.
The forum began in earnest bright and early Saturday morning, with breakfast and a panel discussion with education leaders in the Verde Valley: The superintendents of the six Verde Valley school districts; Greg Kirkham, a retired principal from St. Joseph’s Catholic School; and Donna Green, a program manager for the Valley Academy of Career and Technical Education.
The panel primarily shared difficulties schools have faced with state funding cuts and increased federal mandates, with many describing ways teachers and administrators have gotten creative in serving students as best they can with limited resources.
“You have to make do with what you have,” said Steve King, superintendent of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District and president of the Verde Valley Forum for Public Affairs.
He cited community support in budget overrides and capital bond projects. “Not every school has that advantage we do.”
“We’re asking people to do more with less, and telling them even more that we appreciate them,” added Penny Hargrove, superintendent and principal at Mingus Union High School.
After breakfast, the forum attendees split into groups of 10 to 12 to discuss topics that included describing the current state of prekindergarten through 12th-grade education, formulating strategies to strengthen education and enhance community interest, and exploring solutions to improve funding for schools.
“The staff and educators in the Verde Valley are accomplishing remarkable things with the insufficient resources allocated to them,” the forum’s statement read once they reached a consensus on the state of education in the Verde Valley. “However, the system is under stress .... Doing more with less is simply not a viable longterm solution to the problems we face and the outcomes we seek.”
One of the most pervasive issues discussed at the forum was funding public education. Dan Hunting, a senior policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, gave a presentation on finding and keeping educators in Arizona classrooms — a difficult feat, considering Hunting reported that Arizona is in the bottom five of states in terms of teacher pay.
“Despite all the difficulties — low pay, increasing workload and a feeling of lack of support — 69 percent of those [teachers] we surveyed are either somewhat or very satisfied with the teaching profession,” Hunting said. “They love the job.”
Based on the day’s presentations and discussions, the forum convened to come to a consensus on the state of education in the Verde Valley and possible solutions for funding and engagement, then decided on priority topics to form the basis of concrete solutions. Participants again broke into groups — this time based on interest in the listed priorities.
For an hour, participants laid out specific actions to resolve issues they saw in teacher pay, recruitment and retention; collaboration among districts and community involvement; political activism; public relations and communication; and funding.
After Dick Foreman, president and CEO of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, gave a lunchtime presentation on how other Western states fund education, both the teacher pay and funding groups suggested plans to present an initiative for an excise tax on energy. The group discussing collaboration proposed three initiatives: Restructuring the Verde Valley Education Consortium to better equip it for effectiveness; compiling an inventory of resources that would allow the Verde Valley school districts to share materials; and starting more Career and Technical Education programs for area students.
Meanwhile, the group interested in improving public relations and communication suggested looking into finding a grant to fund a dedicated public relations manager who would work for all Verde Valley school districts.
Finally, the group discussing political activism had three action items. First, Jessica Williamson charged forum attendees with electing political representatives for whom education is a priority.
To that end, she’s working with the League of Women Voters Greater Verde Valley to set up tables at events and around the Valley to register voters. Sebra Choe, an economic development specialist for the Town of Camp Verde, promised to facilitate a regional youth council with representatives from each school district. And finally, Nikki Bagley, director of viticulture at Yavapai College and former Jerome mayor, pledged to put together a bipartisan action committee that would identify and vet political candidates who are pro-education.
The consensus of the forum will be presented and further discussed at Verde Valley community events hosted by the Verde Valley Forum for Public Affairs, as well as at the next Arizona Town Hall meeting, Funding PreK-12 Education, Sunday through Wednesday, Nov. 12 through 15, in Mesa.