If the state cuts education funding too deeply, it risks rendering itself ineligible for federal education dollars, county Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell said.
At a joint meeting with the Gila County Board of Supervisors, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), and county officials including O’Dell and Sheriff John Armer, officials on Friday discussed the roughly $800 billion federal stimulus package brewing.
“This is exactly the kind of thing I need to hear,” Kirkpatrick told O’Dell about the concern raised.
The congresswoman is traveling around her district to hear about local priorities and concerns as Congress builds the largest spending bill in national history.
Federal funds are generally meant to supplement existing services, not serve as sole funding, O’Dell said. State education funding levels must stay at 2006 levels to remain eligible for federal dollars.
The fiscal year 2009 budget that legislators passed last week appears to satisfy that requirement, O’Dell said. However, she fears that the fiscal 2010 budget could cut into bone.
“Education in the state is about 43 percent of the budget,” O’Dell said. “I think we need to be prepared for the worst.”
According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Arizona’s 2006 general fund for education spending cost the state $3.5 billion. In 2009, general fund spending will rise to $4 billion after budget cuts.
If the U.S. House’s stimulus package passed as is, which is not likely, Payson schools could gain $943,000 this year and $447,000 next year in federal dollars.
The federal government divvies education money into three categories — money for math and reading, construction and special education. O’Dell is advocating for districts to control how they spend the money.
“There’s only so much software you can buy,” she said.
For instance, Payson schools’ largest windfall under the House’s stimulus package — $547,000 of it this year — would be designated for construction. Payson voters last year approved a $33.8 million bond, and the district has upgraded many of its buildings, and constructed new ones.
With funding in Payson’s schools slashed nearly $336,000 this year, and a possible $2.5 million cut next year, new school construction might not rise as a priority.
Similarly, O’Dell said educational initiatives at the county-level are entering forced hibernation.
“We’re expending a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to make do,” she said.
“It’s very distressing for us to have to be focused so much on availability of funding instead of what is our role here — to educate kids.”