By Nick Worth
The summer is winding down and students are back in school after two months of vacation. Teachers and administrators are getting back into the swing of full schedules and the demands of their jobs, but activity in the Navajo County Superintendent of Schools office didn’t undergo a drastic change with the start of the school year.
“We stay pretty busy all year long,” said Superintendent of Schools Linda Morrow. “We don’t take a summer vacation.”
Morrow said her position is one of only six elected offices in the county that has a requirement in order to be eligible for election. She must be a currently certified teacher. The other five offices with requirements are the four superior court judges and the county attorney.
“I have fiscal responsibility for all 13 school districts in Navajo County,” Morrow said, referring to 11 public school districts and two Joint Technological Education Districts (JTEDs), the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) and the Northeast Arizona Technological Institute of Vocational Education (NATIVE).
She also explained her office has no obligation or responsibility over charter schools, or Northland Pioneer College (NPC).
As part of the fiscal responsibility for the school districts, Morrow’s office:
* Approves school district budgets set by the districts’ school boards.
* Sets the tax rates for the districts.
* Handles state grant money awarded to the schools. All grant money goes through Morrow’s office, where it is sent on to the schools.
* Runs all school board elections, including bond elections, overrides and, if needed, recalls.
* Appoints persons to fill school board vacancies, the only task that she also handles for NPC.
* Handles all payrolls and payments. Her office sent out approximately 46,000 warrants (checks) last year not including those teachers who are signed up for direct deposit.
* Assigns a school district for students who live in the Unorganized Territory, a narrow strip of land approximately five miles wide by 20 miles long that falls between the boundaries of the Joseph City and Winslow school districts.
According to Morrow, one of the most hectic times comes at the end of the districts’ fiscal year, June 30. That’s the date when the books for the old year are closed and the new year begins on July 1. She said her office is doing work for both years during that period.
“Say June 30 falls on a Wednesday,” Morrow explained. “The following Friday, July 2, would be a pay day and we have to get all the payroll taken care of.”
She said her office sets up the payroll ahead of time so that can happen, but there is no break in the activity.
“It’s a nightmare, but my staff is incredible,” Morrow said. “They take care of all that.”
Her county staff includes Chief Deputy Tami Phillips, School Finance Supervisor Amber Jones, Senior School Finance Specialist Margarita Mike and School Finance Specialist Selena Nells.
In July the various school districts set their budgets and tax rates, which are then sent to Morrow’s office for approval. She said she sometimes has to negotiate with the school districts on their tax rates, but usually the process goes smoothly.
School districts also have until the end of September to pay for “encumbrances,” items ordered and received before June 30 of the previous fiscal year, so the superintendent’s office has to process the warrants for those items, plus the ongoing payroll checks for employees working throughout the summer.
With the start of the school year, Morrow’s office also has to register all the county’s home-schooled students. She explained her office registers the children only.
“We have no control over curriculum, or testing, but we can advise parents who are home-schooling and help them network with other home-schooling parents,” said Morrow. “Home-school parents can also request AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) testing and we can help with that.”
Also under the umbrella of Morrow’s office is the Education Services Agency (ESA), run by Associate Superintendent Lannie Gillespie. The ESA receives no funding from the county, but is funded through grants and membership fees in the three-county consortium, which provides therapist services to schools in Navajo, Apache and Coconino counties.
Two education specialists work under Gillespie. Victoria Schmitt is a trainer in English Language Arts and Becky Benda-Dodd is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) specialist. Olivia Jaquez is a senior school finance specialist. Dr. Jeff Meeks, a speech pathologist, is also the ESA’s human resources director, directly in charge of the approximately 39 therapists who are out in the schools.
The superintendent’s office also runs two other schools, the HOPE Juvenile Detention School and the Navajo County Instruction for Success school (NCIS) in Holbrook, an alternative high school program with an enrollment of 14 students this year. The Rainbow day program, currently with three students, is also located in the NCIS building.
Morrow said the juvenile detention school is a challenge.
“According to the law, when a child enters juvenile detention, within 48 hours they are required to be enrolled in school,” Morrow said. “We have usually anywhere from six to 30 students on any given day.”
Morrow’s office is also responsible for the coordination and running of the annual School Fair, the annual Science Fair and the Navajo County Spelling Bee.
Entries for this year’s School Fair, which runs along with the Navajo County Fair, are due by Sept. 9. The County Spelling Bee takes place in February and the Science Fair will be held in early March. Schools can start registration for the spelling bee in September. Registration dates can be found by contacting the superintendent’s office.
Morrow said all the various responsibilities of her position make good teamwork a necessity.
“The office is complex,” she said. “I don’t do this alone. I have a terrific staff and they’re the ones who make this work. I’m proud of the office and of the team.”
By Nick Worth