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Updated May 13, 2013 - 3:06 pm

Arizona public schools wait for budget answers

PHOENIX — Andrew Smith knows he has to pay the math teachers. But Smith,
superintendent of the Antelope Union High School District in Yuma County, is
torn over whether he will be able to also fund field trips, after-school
tutoring, roof repairs, school buses and support staff.

“I am hoping the state gives us numbers soon,” he said.

Across the state, education leaders in Arizona are trying to plan for the new
school year with little information on how much state or federal funding they
will receive. Education funding represents Arizona’s largest expense, but it’s
unclear whether public schools will get more or less dollars when the new fiscal
year begins in July. School leaders said they are already working with limited
dollars and aren’t sure how they would cut further after years of budget cuts
and policy changes that dictate how state dollars can be spent.

Education leaders are also waiting for lawmakers to reach a decision on
performance funding, school standards and other proposed policy changes. At the
same time, federal budget cuts could translate into a $17.7 million loss for
Arizona public schools.

“It’s scary, especially for parents, because you don’t know if class sizes are
going to go up, you don’t know if teachers are going to be fired,” said
Rochelle Wells, president of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association and the
mother of three high school students in Tempe.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget unveiled earlier this year called for $41.5
million to implement new school standards designed to produce students ready for
the workplace or college. It also set aside $36.2 million to pay for a plan to
link school funding to performance. Both of those proposed policy overhauls are
still being debated by the Legislature.

But the biggest question driving the budget logjam is whether conservative
Republican lawmakers will get on board with Brewer’s plan to expand Medicaid
under President Barack Obama’s federal health overhaul. Brewer has said she
won’t sign any bills until significant progress is made on the budget, while
Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin have refused to pass
the Medicaid expansion.

The stalled negotiations have left teachers, school administrators and parents
anxiously waiting for answers.

“We have to let these people know whether they are going to have a job next
year or not,” said Frank Reed, superintendent of the Somerton School District,
which includes 176 teachers and 3,000 students in five schools in southern
Arizona. “It really makes it difficult to operate.”

Smith, who oversees 20 teachers and 295 students in Yuma County, said he has
left teaching and support staff positions vacant as employees have retired or
quit. He wondered whether he could replace a hot water heater or if students
would be able to travel to education competitions next year.

State education leaders are prepared to draft preliminary budgets later this
week to help local administrators create contingency plans, but they caution
that they are also waiting for answers.

“At this point in time, the normal response is, `we don’t know what to tell
you,”’ said Lyle Friesen, deputy associate superintendent for the state
Department of Education, of his advice to local school leaders.

With the economy sinking, state lawmakers passed a $123 million cut to
education funding in 2009. A year later, they cut $144 million. In 2011, it was
$288 million. The next year, it was a whopping $328 million. In 2013, the
Legislature reduced education funding by roughly $280 million. In all, schools
lost more than $1 billion in five years.

“We haven’t been buying textbooks,” said Tim Ham, superintendent of the
Madison Elementary School District, which includes 400 teachers and 6,000
students in Phoenix. “Morale, and I think not just for here, but other
districts, has been getting pretty low.”


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