State Funding Fix Spells Relief For Local Schools

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The passage of Proposition 301 by Arizona voters last November is supposed to bail out the state's faltering education system by providing an extra $445 million for teachers' salaries, building repairs, school maintenance and a host of other programs and initiatives and the moment of truth is close at hand.

"The state has to tell us the actual amount we're going to get by the end of March," Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said.

Of that amount, 20 percent will be used to provide teachers with an across-the-board raise, 40 percent will go to teachers on a merit basis, and 40 percent can be spent on various improvements, including class-size reductions.

"Starting next year teachers should get at least a $1,000 raise, and it could go as high as $5,000, depending on the merit pay," Weissenfels said.

Each school district is now required by state law to form a committee of teachers responsible for developing a system for distributing merit-pay funding that is acceptable to the district's school board.

"Our teachers should get a considerable boost, Weissenfels said. "It's not where it should be yet, but at least it's a heck of an improvement."

Besides the merit issue, the reason the amount teachers will receive is uncertain is that the new funding will come from a sales tax increase of six-tenths of 1 percent, boosting the rate from 5 percent to 5.6 percent. The increase will begin in June and last for 20 years.

With the economy slowing, revenues could be less than anticipated.

"There could be money for $1,000 for every teacher next year, but only half that amount the following year," Weissenfels said.

It has been reported that some members of the Legislature may try during the next session to change the mandates established by Proposition 301, but Lisa Graham Keegan, state superintendent of public instruction, said that won't happen without a fight.

"We believe the intent of Proposition 301 with regard to money going to school sites, site-based decision-making, performance pay for individual teachers, and implementation of accountability measures is very clear," and "... the Department of Education will vigorously oppose any attempts to water down these critical provisions."

Other components of the proposition require the state to increase the amount it spends on schools by 2 percent a year to accommodate inflation, and add one day to the school calendar each year for the next five years.

Even if the revenues match projections, and even if the legislature leaves the money alone, it won't do a whole lot for the state's 50th-place ranking in per student spending.

"We'll only go from 50th to maybe 48th, and that's sad," Weissenfels said. "But it's something we are stuck with and are going to have to accept."

While Weissenfels said he is elated that Proposition 301 passed statewide, he is disappointed that local voters turned it down. He said he thinks part of the reason it failed in the Rim country is an attitude among some retirees that they shouldn't have to pay for schools now that their children are grown.

"These kids are still going to determine this community's ... future, and that includes what happens to retirees," he said. "These 18-year-olds are less than 10 years away from decision-making positions and many of our seniors are still going to be around then.

"These aren't my kids either, but they are going to be making the decisions that affect my retirement years, and I want them to have the best education possible."

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