The state budget has swelled by about $1 billion this year with increased tax collections and other revenue.
School districts, on the other hand, are faced with many of the same inflationary pressures as the families they serve — in health insurance, retirement, fuel and other costs.
This would seem to be the perfect time for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools to have this problem, but it’s not yet clear whether having those costs covered this year will be a slam-dunk for schools.
More than three months into the legislative session, there’s no resolution on how much state money will go toward teacher pay, full-day kindergarten and other programs many educators and parents want to see expanded. On top of that, more than $30 million in court-ordered fines that will eventually go into programs for English language learners is still tied up in litigation.
“All indications that we have are that the (budget) talks are very vague, without a lot of specifics in terms of dollars to be allocated,” said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union with 33,000 members
He said most of the information the union has received involves lawmakers trying to decide where they would like to see additional funding — for example, higher teacher salaries versus smaller class sizes.
“This is a budget year where we should not be faced with those false choices,” Wright said.
The initial budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes about $3.6 billion in state funding for public schools, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
But legislators haven’t been able to get very far beyond that this session, with a total budget surplus figure — $1 billion — finally settled on earlier this month.
“We’re starting very late, and I’m not sure why,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.
Now that this number has emerged, parents, educators and students can expect the fur to start flying.
“The budget is probably 80 percent done where there’s general agreement, and there’s about 20 percent where all the fighting is going to take place,” said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, chairman of the House Education Committee. “(This) week we should be into it full-blast, in struggling on how to allocate that 20 percent.”
SEEKING MORE FUNDS
School officials across the state are facing a 9 percent increase in the required peremployee contribution to the state retirement fund, along with increasing health insurance premiums.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is seeking $150 million in additional funding for teacher pay alone. Horne said he thinks it’s fair to expect additional money for schools given the surplus and the added emphasis on accountability he’s brought to the public education system.
But Anderson said given the competing demands for the 20 percent of the budget that’s still up for grabs, Horne may not get everything he’s asking for.
“I don’t think $150 million is a realistic number, for this year. I think $50 million would be a much more realistic number,” Anderson said.
Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has already released her schools budget wish list, which includes $45 million to cover insurance and retirement costs, and another $45.7 million to boost teacher pay, which would ensure that no teacher would be paid less than $30,000 a year.
She’s also asking for $105 million to expand the voluntary full-day kindergarten program statewide, an idea popular with many parents and educators, but having a hard time getting traction among the Republicans that control the Capitol.
TOUGH CHOICES AHEAD
A billion-dollar state surplus and hundreds of millions of extra dollars for schools may sound exorbitant to most voters, but observers on both sides of this equation aren’t as impressed.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Association of Arizona School Business Officials, cites a recently released U.S. Census survey that ranks Arizona 48th in the nation in perstudent spending.
It would have taken $2.3 billion more to bring Arizona even with the national average for 2003-04, the most recent year analyzed by the census department, he said.
Sen. John Huppenthal, RChandler, who sits on both the appropriations and education committees, said legislators will still have to make some tough choices.
He said his priority lies with expanding existing programs, “not expanding programs into areas that we can’t really afford this session.”