Prop. 100 saves education jobs, but school districts still cutting budgets - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Prop. 100 saves education jobs, but school districts still cutting budgets

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Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2010 3:20 pm

By passing Proposition 100 on Tuesday, Arizona voters possibly saved hundreds of education jobs in the East Valley.

But school leaders across the state still have to finalize budgets with cuts that were made by the Legislature to address the expected $4 billion revenue shortfall next year.

The cuts just won't be as deep as they could have been.

And looking beyond next school year, Prop. 100's chief supporter, Gov. Jan Brewer, herself said that the temporary 1-cent hike in the state sales tax is not a "cure all." Tuesday night she acknowledged that more needs to be done to streamline government.

Added with tax collections still falling behind predictions, and an economic recovery still far off, school leaders are already saying that a year from now they may be facing tough budget decisions again.

Prop. 100 was put on the ballot by lawmakers after more than a year of haggling. The measure is seen as a way to help put funds in the state's dwindling coffers.

The Legislature and governor approved two budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The first included cuts to multiple state agencies as well as revenues from Prop. 100, which is expected to raise about $1 billion a year for three years. The second would have made an additional $800 million in cuts, most from education, if the measure had failed.

School districts also prepared contingency plans.

The Gilbert district gave out pink slips to more than 200 teachers. But now, because voters approved Prop. 100, the district will offer free, full-day kindergarten, allowing it to hire back about 100 teachers for the fall, governing board member E.J. Anderson said.

The Chandler district's contingency plans had included cutting between 100 to 150 positions. It also considered a 2 percent to 4 percent salary cut for all employees.

Mesa Unified School District's possible budget cuts had included increasing class sizes, charging for full-day kindergarten and cutting some instructional aide positions. The tax increase means more than 300 positions won't be eliminated.

"When push comes to shove, the voters were willing to say, ‘We want our kids educated. We value their education.' I'm just delighted that education is so important to people," Gilbert's Anderson said.

School leaders still have final decisions to make.

Even with passage of the tax increase, Mesa Unified needs to cut $25 million; Gilbert needs to cut $6 million and Chandler needs to cut $14 million.

Many of those governing boards will meet in the next week to explore options, from increasing the workload for some teachers in Chandler to decreasing preschool by one day in Gilbert to furlough days for employees in Mesa.

The future will continue to be uncertain for some time, school leaders said. More than 40 percent of the state's budget goes to education in Arizona. And that general fund is dependent on the ebb and flow of consumer spending.

"The economy needs to start to recover. The (state) general fund is very dependent on sales tax and income tax," said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. When that recovery starts, people will start buying more, "which will give the state more revenue which would prevent cuts from hitting schools down the road."

But no one knows when the economy will rebound - and that has school leaders worried.

"What we're being informally told is next year looks just as bad as this year," said Mesa Superintendent Mike Cowan. The district may have to look at some of the budget cuts it considered making if the tax had failed, he said.

"The state financial landscape needs to improve dramatically in three years or then we are back to, or worse than, we are right now," Cowan said, adding that federal stimulus dollars will also be coming to an end.

"That's what our future looks like if the economy does not begin to recover and give some relief to our budget."

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