After weeks of back-and-forth discussions and negotiations among state lawmakers, public schools across Arizona now know how much they’ll lose in funding for their charter campuses.
The resolution to the budget conflicts between the state House and Senate officially ended when Gov. Jan Brewer signed off on a $9.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2014-15 on April 11. While the 2014-15 budget is larger than its predecessor, the spending increase came with cuts to several programs, among them funding for public schools to convert campuses to charters, with the state chopping the expenditure from $33 million to $24.5 million.
Arizona law allows for public school districts to convert campuses to charter schools, as long as one public school remains for every grade level. In a previous interview, Chandler Assistant Superintendent of Business Lana Berry said districts’ motivation for making the shift is the more than additional state funding that accounts for more than $1,000 per students. The decision does come with a few qualifiers; the additional money can only go to the charter schools, and districts that convert charters back to traditional campuses have to reimburse the state for those additional funds.
The caveats haven’s dissuaded districts from converting traditional schools to charters in recent years or even opening schools as charters, which is what the Higley Unified School District did this school year when it opened Cooley and Sossaman middle schools. Higley Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty said the district even followed a charter model when constructing the two campuses.
But districts such as Higley, Paradise Valley and Maricopa Unified now have to account for a 25-percent decrease in charter school funding for the coming year. At Higley, the total comes to $730,000 in charter money and a total budget hit of approximately $2.2 million.
What that means for Higley, Hegarty said, is a delay in the implementation of certain projects for the coming year, among them a plan to purchase new textbooks for classrooms.
“We’re disappointed, but we’ll do what we always do when we deal with adversity,” he said.
School districts have had the option of converting for years, but the issue was brought to the forefront during budget talks when the state Senate passed a bill that eliminated the option and cut all the funding for the coming fiscal year. Lawmakers in the House disagreed with the cut and instead voted to maintain the entire $33 million pool when approving their budget plan, which led the two sides negotiating the $24.5 million total Brewer ultimately approved.
Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, introduced the legislation shortly before the senate approved a $9.2 billion budget plan, and he said the goal was to cut what he deemed a loophole in education funding. Hegarty, however, questioned the loophole, saying the legislature could consider reducing the number of for-profit charter schools if members remain worried about the budget implications.
“Those are directly from the general fund,” he said.
Although this year’s budget situation is finalized, the following years could be a little more difficult for districts like Higley, as the intention of paying for the option this year was to eliminate it entirely beginning with the 2015-16 budget.
Losing even more funding could hurt districts like Higley, but the lack of a sudden shift provides them one benefit.
“At least now we can start planning,” Hegarty said.
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