Schools Fear Impact Of State Budget Cuts

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Local educators say that a tentative plan to slash $900 million, and possibly all-day kindergarten, from the state’s education budget to balance the budget would devastate local schools.

The House and Senate Appropriations chairs, John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) and Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) worked with Joint Legislative Budget staff to develop an “options” list, which they released last week.

The legislature’s options for cuts likely present the most “draconian” option, which local school officials pray will fade to something less devastating.

“Hopefully it won’t be this huge,” said Payson Schools Superintendent Casey O’Brien. “It’s more a gut to me than a cut.”

More than half of the legislature’s options for balancing the fiscal year 2010 budget come from K-12 education and the state universities — education cuts for those two entities could amount to $1.2 billion out of a total $2.2 billion in cuts that year.

Potential slashes to K-12 education amount to $103 million this year and $892 million the next to compensate for an expected $1.5-billion statewide shortfall this year, and $3 billion the next. The impact to community colleges this year could reach $12 million, and then expand to $41 million next year.

Cuts this year mean that districts, including Payson, would need to revisit this year’s budgets and likely make sacrifices. O’Brien said that local discussions won’t proceed until legislators make more final decisions.

The initial legislative proposal eliminates programs like full-day kindergarten, for a savings of $218 million in 2010. Soft capital money, for things like textbooks and buses, could see a $91-million reduction statewide this year and a complete suspension the next, to save $219 million.

Many of the legislature’s proposed measures would require amending or repealing laws such as the suggestion to phase out Career Ladder, a performance pay program. The elimination would save the state $5.2 million next year. Funding for dual enrollment, in which high school students earn college credit in programs like culinary arts, could be halved for a statewide savings of $2 million.

“These options are just that, options,” said Rep. Rich Crandall (R-Mesa) in a press release. Local legislators were unavailable for comment by press time.

O’Brien said Arizona now ranks 49th in education spending, and this proposal, if enacted, could move the state to 50th.

The possible cut “potentially cripples us to do the things we need to do,” to prepare students for college or the work world, O’Brien said.

He also feared the legislature will make short-term cuts with long-term implications. “Be careful what you do here, because you’re impacting Arizona’s future.”

This year, Payson’s schools budget contained roughly $655,000 in soft capital, the majority of which the district has already spent, and a $16-million maintenance and operations budget.

School districts have responsibilities and contracts — bus leases, among other things. This year, if the legislature cuts more than what Payson has already spent, the district can move money around, said Business Manager Bobette Tomerlin.

However, if soft capital funding is suspended next year, there’s no more money to move around. Then what? Tomerlin shrugs and throws her hands up. She has no answer.

To compound Payson’s problems, voters defeated the $1.4-million maintenance and operations override in November. As a consequence, the budget will be $400,000 shorter next year as the money incrementally decreases.

However, the county expects to receive $2.1 million from the federal government through a federal rural schools program, although it has not formally discussed how to distribute that money. The funds have filtered from the federal level to the state, and the county should receive it shortly, said Deputy County Manager John Nelson.

When asked if the state could keep the money, he said, “Everything is possible, but I don’t really see how they could keep it.”

Gila Community College Senior Dean Stephen Cullen said the proposal was too preliminary to comment in depth. “What you don’t see there is a very intense effort not to pilfer, if you will, the current funding of the community college.”

He predicted that larger community colleges would hemorrhage the most. “The larger districts may get their heads cut off. We may get our toes lopped off,” Cullen said.

Many local officials predicted in December that the legislature would reconvene this month and make drastic cuts to account for a budget deficit that seemingly grows larger every month.

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