After joyfully receiving millions of dollars in new state funding for teacher raises, fullday kindergarten and special education, Arizona’s school districts are finding themselves in an unexpected predicament — they are spending too much money, according to the state’s constitution.
School districts around the state recently have been informed their annual expenditures have exceeded a state constitutional limit by nearly $8 million.
Unless the Legislature approves the excess by March, schools will have to cut their budgets. While the excess is just a small percentage of the state’s $4.9 billion education budget, it could spell big trouble for some districts.
The state’s largest district, Mesa Unified, has exceeded the limit by close to $600,000, said George Zeigler, director of financial services.
“It would be a hardship to try to cut $600,000, midway through the year,” he
said. “That’s a lot of dollars. It’s not something that would come easily.”
Even if the Legislature approves a temporary excess, a permanent increase in the spending limit would have to go to voters next November, said Steve Schimpp, an analyst with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
The spending cap has been around since 1980, when voters decided school spending should not exceed an amount based on enrollment growth and inflation, Schimpp said.
The state’s schools have exceeded that amount twice in the past, but both times it eventually was approved either by voters or by the Legislature, said Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
The last time the limit was exceeded was in 2001, after voters approved ballot initiatives that increased educational funding and teacher pay.
This time around, the problem likely comes from increased funding for programs like full-day kindergarten, Essigs said.
“We’ve informed everybody, but these are district responsibilities,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. “I think it might be wise for the Legislature to consider amending the Constitution to give them a more programmed fix, rather than deal with this every year.”