School District Bracing For Possible Budget Cuts

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Senior tech for PEC, Jesus Araujo, installs more of the phone lines that will soon be buzzing at the new Julia Randall Elementary School building.

Despite still nebulous finances for the next school year, the Payson Unified School District could begin prioritizing this month to prepare for possible cuts.

Arizona will likely receive $810 million in federal stimulus funds for K-12 education under a special state stabilization fund, which nearly covers the $892 million in possible cuts two leading legislators presented in January.

“It’s strictly a coincidence,” said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien at a recent school board meeting. He added that that more details should emerge in the next two weeks.

Budget negotiations are ongoing at the legislature, and no firm numbers have arisen yet. If the options presented in January by the House and Senate Appropriations chairs passed, Payson would lose $2.5 million next year.

While numbers float and politicians negotiate, the Payson school board could begin prioritizing at its March 30 board meeting. Any teachers whose contracts are not renewed must be notified by April 15.

Board member Richard Meyer has pushed to redefine the district’s mission statement, saying that the board should bounce any cuts it makes against a clear vision.

“We don’t have to wait to get a dollar amount to prioritize,” he said at the meeting.

Payson will have received $911,000 by the end of this month in federal funds from the stimulus package and October’s bailout bill.

From the stimulus package, Payson will receive $370,000, which is earmarked for special education and teaching at-risk students. That money should come by the end of March, with another roughly $370,000 expected some time in the next two years.

From the bailout bill, Payson received $541,000 in February from a federal rural schools program. That money will continue in decreasing increments until fiscal year 2011.

The stimulus package also contained $53.6 billion in one-time state stabilization funds available nationally, of which Arizona will receive $1 billion. Of that money, $810 million will fund K-12 education in Arizona.

A potential quandary arises, however, with spending the money because it’s not a permanent funding source. The district must be careful to make short-term investments with long-term benefits, O’Brien said. The recession is not guaranteed to be over when the money runs out.

Essentially, the education stimulus funds fall into three categories — stabilization funds sent to the state, money for existing federal programs sent to districts, and competitive grants that must be applied for.

Gov. Jan Brewer must also apply for stabilization funds, which O’Brien said she hasn’t done because she hasn’t received the applications. However, he said that 67 percent of the state stabilization money will arrive within two weeks of the governor applying for it.

“There is potential good news there, but not specificity,” said O’Brien. The threat still remains that the legislature will cut education funding below 2006 base levels, which could affect the funding received because federal funds are supposed to supplement state funds, not replace them.

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