PANGUITCH – Following a public hearing at Monday’s Garfield County Commission meeting, all three commissioners voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency, hoping for help with economic development from congressmen and senators, citing their children as their No. 1 export.
While the issue is not exactly about whether they will be closing the doors of schools in the near future, Commissioner Leland F. Pollock said, it certainly goes hand in hand with the crux of it all – a lack of strong, year-round work options for community members.
Since the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, Pollock said, the job opportunities in the region have declined so severely that families have been moving out of the county at a rapid rate.
By declaring a state of emergency, the county commissioners said they believe they can call attention to the fact that area schools are losing students at an alarming rate because job sustainability is not feasible for their parents in the area.
While there are quite a few new jobs that have been created in Garfield County as a result of the monument, County Economic Development Director Justin Fischer said, they are typically minimum wage positions, and all of them are seasonal.
There are many positions that are allotted to tourists from out of the country or out of the state, as well, he said. Meaning that while the jobs are there, they do little to help the county when the money is leaving the area along with the seasonal employee who is not a resident.
Groups like Headwaters Economics have painted an unrealistic and inaccurate picture of what employment in Garfield County really looks like today, Fischer said, with numbers and determinations that he said he has rebutted more times than he can count through the years.
The biggest employer in our county is Ruby’s Inn. They employ over 500 people. All of those, except a handful, are seasonal jobs. Not only are they seasonal, they are low-skill and they are low-paying. Now this isn’t to say Ruby’s Inn is bad, but these people are saying, ‘Oh, look, jobs are increasing,’ while, in fact, we are getting seasonal, part-time jobs replacing year-round, well-paying, full-time jobs, and they are counting that as the same.
Though there are no specific studies that have been done by Garfield County, Pollock said, the evidence that job security is scarce can be found in the number of students that are still left in the schools.
“It starts with exporting children from your county,” he said. “It starts with, ‘If you’re economically viable, why do we have no children in our schools? Why has the population of Escalante went down instead of up?’ which is what (Headwaters Economics) have eluded to.”
During the public portion of the commission meeting, Garfield County School Board Vice President Cheryl Cox said she was concerned that a state of emergency and bad publicity in the press would result in an opposite effect than intended, driving possible residents away from the idea of relocating into the region.
“Maybe we need to flip this a little bit,” she said, “and instead of saying, ‘There’s enrollment of 50 kids at Escalante High School,’ what we need to say is, ‘You know, we have limited enrollment at Escalante High School; and you can apply and we just might let you come,’ because I think there needs to be a little turn about this, because it is incredible, and our schools are incredible.”
Panguitch High School in Garfield County is rated 14th in the state, according to U.S. News and World Report 2015 rankings. With a small student-to-teacher ratio and a 3.0 rating in language proficiency, the school has outranked a whopping 171 other high schools statewide to earn its position.
The teachers and staff who work with the students deserve all the credit, Garfield County Superintendent Ben Dalton said.
“We have amazing individuals who come to work every day, regardless of lower pay compared to other districts,” Dalton said. “But they love their community, and those teachers, and parents, and bus drivers, and lunch ladies and administrators – everybody – they have pride in what they do.”
In addition to the stellar high school education available to students at Panguitch High School, Business Administrator Patty Murphy said, Antimony Elementary also ranked high in the “Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence” tests.
“(Antimony) was the one with the fourth highest SAGE scores across the state,” she said.
With schools that are topnotch available to educate Garfield County youth, Pollock said, it is difficult to watch as each school loses more and more students to parents leaving, because leaving is the only way for parents to support their families.
Panguitch High School has done a good job maintaining its numbers while other schools in the district have been declining, Pollock said, but that has everything to do with location.
“One thing that’s drastically different – it sits on Highway 89,” Pollock said. “All of these other communities that are mentioned here are on Highway 12, which basically shuts down in the wintertime.”
Even so, he said, jobs are slowly disappearing in Panguitch, too.
“Panguitch used to have 10 gas stations, two car dealerships, a Western Auto, a Sears, three grocery stores. Yes, OK, in Panguitch, Utah, it was a bustling town,” Pollock said. “And you had twice the (cattle) AUMs … you had a booming sawmill up here, you had mining going on, you had all kinds of multiple use of our public land, and you had a solid economy.”
The truth is, Pollock said, if the federal government hadn’t locked up all of the public lands with the creation of the monument, many of the stressors on the area’s economy simply would not exist.
They are not anti-government nor anti-tourism, he said; they are just hoping to find a way to work together with the federal government to maximize the potential of the land within their county and create sustainable options for long-term, year-round jobs for their residents.
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