Education leaders crossing fingers on funding - East Valley Tribune: News

Education leaders crossing fingers on funding

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Posted: Saturday, January 9, 2010 9:14 pm | Updated: 3:39 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

There are some concerns that any more cuts to Arizona's education spending would put federal stimulus dollars in jeopardy.

Close to 42 percent of Arizona's budget goes to fund kindergarten through 12th grade education. School districts and charter schools saw a mid-year cut last winter. Districts saw soft capital funds swept back in December.

There are some concerns that any more cuts to Arizona's education spending would put federal stimulus dollars in jeopardy. To receive the money, states had to agree to keep education spending at the same level it was in 2006.

But education advocates aren't sitting on the sidelines assuming the funding is safe.

"We're hoping the Legislature balances the budget with minimal reductions to schools," said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. "To do that, it appears to us additional revenues will have to be generated somewhere. But that was our hope last session, too."

As lawmakers grapple with two years of budgets - and two years of billion-dollar-plus shortfalls - school districts are hoping for more flexibility with the dollars they do receive, and fewer regulations.

One move the Chandler Unified School District's Chief Financial Officer Joel Wirth is hoping for is the ability for local school districts to pick up the tab for Career Ladder. The program provides additional money for teachers who meet goals in their classrooms or their own learning.

By moving the funding burden for Career Ladder from the state to the local districts, it would save Arizona money and it would open up the program to all the state's school districts, Wirth said.

Career Ladder is now available to about half the teachers in Arizona. Wirth said he would also like to see fewer reporting requirements for student attendance.

The Mesa Unified School District's leaders have been looking all fall at changes they can make to improve education in the state's largest district, as well as save dollars. But after the school board votes on proposed changes Tuesday, school leaders expect another round of budget talks to begin.

"In the short term, as soon as that's done, we're going to have to figure out how we're going to budget for next year," said school board member Dave Lane. "We're going to have to figure out what we're going to do with this year's budget with whatever the state does to us. There's a pretty strong likelihood they'll pull back some funding in addition to what they've already done."

The Queen Creek Unified School District's biggest concern about the upcoming legislative session is "what kind of further cuts there will be to education budgets and when their budget will be completed," said assistant superintendent Tom Lindsey.

"There is not much room to cut in the (Queen Creek district) and other district budgets that will not have a potential negative impact in the classroom for students, parents and teachers such as larger class sizes," Lindsey said. "The lateness of the Legislature's decisions on budgetary issues makes it extremely difficult for school districts to properly plan budgets for the upcoming year, so hopefully that will not be the case this year as it has been in the past."

Higley Unified School District Superintendent Denise Birdwell said because Arizona has been a "growth state relying on the revenue generated from the three main taxes (individual income tax, property tax, and corporate sales tax), school districts "depend on the general fund being able to support the education of our children."

"The legislature has an extremely difficult task of balancing expenditures and revenues," Birdwell said. "We support the work of the Legislature and offer our assistance. We believe that the economic challenges may offer the unique opportunity to work together with the state leadership. There is no easy answer, but there are solutions."

The Higley district is expecting a funding level from the 2006 fiscal year and is budgeting based on those figures.

"We know we must rely on our community to support initiatives that may bring revenue back to education, whether an override or a state tax increase," Birdwell said. "We will do our part to create efficiencies within our organization as well as develop our volunteerism and bring in outside revenue sources to support education in Higley."

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