$150m Budget Cut Would 'Devastate' Local Schools

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School Superintendent Herb Weissenfels and School Board member Kristi Ford agree that Gov. Jane Hull's recent proposed $150 million budget cut would "devastate" Arizona's schools including those within the Payson Unified School District.

The only point upon which they differ is the level of devastation.

Announced last week, Hull's 2003 state budget-balancing plan would slash 53 percent of the "soft capital" Arizona schools have available to them for books, software, buses and furniture. Were it to get a green light from the Legislature, the cut could also translate into increased property taxes for all of the state's unified school districts.

The panic which promptly swept across Arizona's education landscape eased into nervousness earlier this week when Hull who had promised she was open to alternative solutions to the state's $1 billion budget shortfall began investigating a new two-pronged possibility. This replacement idea would save the schools' soft capital by taking a $188 million rollover and leasing or lease-purchasing new construction, which could save another $200 million for the state over the next year.

Hull's original proposal, however, is "still out there on the table, very definitely," Weissenfels said.

And because it remains an option, Ford said, "the people of Payson really need to know the kind of devastating impact this could have on our district ... It's great that they're working on (an alternative plan), but it would sure help if we had some public support, too."

What bothers Ford the most, she says, is that the governor's office and the media have been "simplifying" the target of the original proposal: soft capital.

"They're saying it's money spent on textbooks and desks and that sort of thing," Ford said. "What they aren't telling you is that soft capital is called soft because the schools are allowed a certain percentage of it every year into regular 'M and O' (maintenance and operations). Because of all the cuts we've taken in funding over the last several years and the legislature not funding for inflation, etc., etc. almost every school district in the state transfers at least 75 percent of their soft capital into M and O. It's almost like they're ignoring that fact."

If Hull's $150 million deduction should be allowed to fly, Ford said, "It would be devastating. Of course, any cut, literally, would be devastating ... In the area of education, you can't cut without it having a major impact on your ability to provide education for the children in your community.

"Every single one of the items that's on the table to be cut will affect the Payson Unified School District," Ford said. "My question is: Why aren't they asking the taxpayers if they'd be willing to have, say, a state income-tax increase to offset those educational losses that they are expecting?

"Arizona is already dead last in per-pupil funding in the nation, and with these cuts we'll be dead last again. Are Arizona's mothers, fathers and grandparents willing to allow that for their children? I think somebody should stand up and say, 'This is wrong. You can't just slash education and call it good.'"

Levels of devastation

Weissenfels concurs with Ford that, were Hull's proposal be allowed to fly, PUSD would take "a big hit." But he takes some consolation in his view that "almost any other (school budget cut the state might come up with) could be more devastating.

"Yes, it would hurt. But in all honesty, there's worse places we could get hit like Career Ladder. If that were cut, our teachers' salaries would be reduced by an average of $2,800. That would be more devastating right now than not being able to buy textbooks or library books for a year. We could do that if we had to. "

During the last school year, Weissenfels said, PUSD spent $60,000 of its soft capital on vehicles for student transportation.

"Sure, it's best to do that, to keep your fleet newer so they won't be breaking down all the time," he said. "But can you operate for a year without brand-new vehicles? Sure. But what are you going to do when you have to cut your teachers' salaries by $2,800?"

Weissenfels emphasized that he is not in favor of seeing soft capital cut "It's just not the worst-case scenario as I see it. And I still have hope that we'll be seeing more alternatives like those being suggested."

The combination rollover/ lease and lease purchase alternative now being presented to the leadership of the House, he believes, would be an ideal solution for the state and its schools.

Under the rollover, "The state would not give Arizona's public schools June payment, and that's worth $188 million," the superintendent said. "They would give that payment to us July 2. Do we still get it? Yes, just a little late. ... Some day the state will have to catch up, maybe in better times. But in the meantime, do we miss a beat? We don't miss a thing by doing that."

In addition to that money, "Which is more than the $150 million the state needs," Weissenfels said, "if the School Facility Board's new construction were either lease or lease purchase, that could save another $200 million for the state over the next year. And that's much more than (Hull) is asking for."

The result, he said, would be that "nothing would stop. Everyone would move forward with all of their building projects and everything throughout the state would continue with no interruptions.

"Whether (Hull) would favor that or not is still open, but ... it would take some of the heat off the idea that soft capital is the only way to go," Weissenfels said. "If she does take the soft capital? You do that and we'll stay 50th in the nation in school expenditures, which is where we placed last year again. I guess we'll just have to see."

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