State Budget Crisis Hits Schools Hard

Payson district will lose $336,000 this year, $2.5 million next school year

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On Wednesday night, Payson Unified School District officials anticipated they could lose $277,600 from this year’s budget. By Thursday afternoon, that number had increased to nearly $336,000 as legislators continued budget negotiations.

“We can still absorb that,” Superintendent Casey O’Brien said Thursday. However, compensating for the loss would absorb reserves and diminish future room for error.

And next year, Payson schools could lose another $2.5 million from its $15.8-million budget if legislators pass the budget “options” proposed, school officials said at a public meeting Wednesday.

State legislators have met feverishly throughout the week, and they reportedly aim to finish a revised fiscal year 2009 budget by this weekend, ready for Gov. Jan Brewer to sign. This year’s deficit is expected to reach $1.6 billion.

That leaves a projected $3-billion shortfall for fiscal year 2010 with which to contend.

The original budget-cutting options, presented earlier this month by House and Senate Appropriations chairs John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) and Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), have met vocal opposition, especially from the collegiate community.

However, the superintendent of the Florence Unified School District recently organized a protest at the Capitol that drew 1,500 people. O’Brien predicted the outcry from the K-12 community will become more voluminous as budget negotiations progress.

Under the original proposal, school districts around the state grappled with a $92-million cut to funding this fiscal year. The cuts mostly centered on a $91.5-million cut in soft capital, which funds things like textbooks and computers.

The good news is that cuts to million statewide, which equates to $64,500 in Payson.

To offset the gain, however, the legislature will likely not vote this year on a provision that allows schools to spend over their constitutionally set budget limits. The move was expected, but not until next year.

Payson’s cut could amount to $256,000. The state will save $98 million.

According to O’Brien, the legislature implemented the law limiting expenditures during the inflation-ridden 1970s. Each year, the legislature votes whether to override the rule.

All told, school districts around the state could lose $119 million this year, up from the originally proposed $92 million. Those numbers do not include agency cuts to the state Department of Education.

Next year’s reductions to K-12 education could reach $900 million as legislators discuss eliminating funding for soft capital all together and disbanding all-day kindergarten.

The potential $2.5 million cut to Payson Unified School District’s budget next year is the equivalent of firing all administrative staff districtwide, 26 classroom teachers and halting new textbook and computer purchases, O’Brien said in an effort to humanize the dollar amount.

In real terms, it would mean combining some elementary grade level classes, “significant” layoffs, and larger class sizes.

“There is no way with a $2.5 million cut not to see a substantial increase in class size,” O’Brien said. Specific proposals won’t be discussed until the scenario solidifies.

“You ask a fourth-grade teacher with 24 students how much more difficult is it to do that same job with fourth- and fifth-graders together,” O’Brien said.

The school district is Payson’s largest employer, and O’Brien said the trickle down effect could prove disastrous. Layoffs mean fewer dollars spent locally.

Lost jobs could force some families to move, which means fewer students attending the schools. Fewer students translates into less money because the district receives state money based on enrollment.

Not buying textbooks, computers or furniture for schools could save the state $218.9 million, with $640,000 of that from Payson.

Eliminating all-day kindergarten would reduce Payson’s budget by $146,700, and the state would come $218 million closer to balancing its budget.

“That’s a number. I see faces with that number. Those are kindergarten teachers,” O’Brien said.

A lump sum reduction for the district would cost nearly $512,000, and save the state $220 million. The per-student cost would amount to about $205.

Legislators might also vaporize a performance pay program for teachers called Career Ladder. The program also helps pay for professional training.

“This is compensation,” O’Brien said, adding that the proposal marks the elimination of a program proven valuable. “That’s not a moratorium.”

The program costs the state $10.9 million, $77,000 of that in Payson.

Schools could also lose the 2 percent annual increase allotted for inflation, which would cost the district $242,000. The statewide savings would reach $100 million.

A legislative formula that helps school districts cope with rising utilities costs was slated for phase-out prior to the budget crisis. Now, it could be eliminated all together to save the state $81 million. In Payson, that could amount to nearly $310,000.

O’Brien said that superintendents countywide recently met with a county official to discuss the $2.1 million in federal rural schools funds that the county expects to receive. Payson’s share is estimated at $500,000, which will likely help as the district also grapples with accounting for lost funds from the budget override voters defeated in November.

Next, year, the district will account for $430,700 fewer dollars. This year, it could see a decrease of more than $90,000 — if the proposed budget cuts pass. The override represents 10 percent of the maintenance and operations budget. As the budget decreases, so does the override money, school officials said.

“In difficult situations, it’s time to make reality your friend,” O’Brien said. “I would urge you, if you’re so inclined, to let your legislator know in a positive way that cuts of this magnitude are simply not acceptable.”

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