When the state Legislature starts Monday, educators will be ready to voice their concerns over possible budget cuts to schools.
Arizona School Administrators Association president Greg Wyman will hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. at the Capitol.
“I don’t think people realize how much of an economic engine public education is,” said Wyman, who also is superintendent of the Apache Junction Unified School District. “For many communities in the state, the local school district is one of the largest employers. And because we are so dependent on people, the large proportion of our budget comes to salaries for people.
“When cuts come down on education, it’s going to come down to cuts to positions and that affects the local economy because they’re not spending that money.”
Wyman said he and other school leaders recognize that the state faces a tough issue with a $1.6 billion deficit this year. They want state lawmakers to give school districts the flexibility to decide what should be cut.
One of the first issues the state Legislature may deal with is the expenditure spending limit that caps what school districts can spend.
This is the third year in a row school districts have set budgets over the expenditure spending limit, primarily because of the way full-day kindergarten is funded, Wyman said. Lawmakers must pass legislation by March 1 that allows districts to spend that money; otherwise they will have to cut their current year budgets.
Across the board, it is about 1.79 percent of every district’s budget. For a district like Mesa Unified, it amounts to $7 million.
“It’s a huge concern,” said Jaime Molera of The Molera Alvarez Group, which is the lobbying arm for Mesa Unified School District. “A lot of times they see it as a formative issue. We have to deal with it otherwise schools are going to have to deal with big cuts that are beyond what we may have now.”
For funding purposes, full-day kindergarten students are counted only as half-day students through the constitutional spending limit, Wyman said.
The solution would be to count the students as full-day students through the expenditure spending limit, but a measure to make that happen did not pass the Legislature last year.
Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, incoming chairman of the House education committee, expects to get right to work on the issue of the expenditure spending limit. If it is not passed, school district governing boards have until April 4 to submit new budgets to the state.
Whether or not that will happen could have a lot to do with the state deficit.
“We have a $1.6 billion shortfall, just a gargantuan amount of money,” said Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, incoming chairman of the Education, Accountability and Reform committee. “In the past we’ve pulled rabbits out of the hat to avoid cutting budgets. The problem is, there’s no more rabbits in the hat. The shortfall is much larger than it’s ever been before.”
Huppenthal said any cuts to education must be fair and “across the board,” and they should reflect the state’s value for learning.
“The cuts to education should be lower than the average cuts,” he said.