Good For Districts, Bad For Teachers

New laws attached to budget up for debate, but the state is still broke

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State legislators weren’t enthused when educators statewide descended on the capitol this year, protesting what they thought were exorbitant cuts to education during budget negotiations.

So lawmakers passed a statute prohibiting contracts from including paid days for “professional association activities.” That includes the Arizona Education Association, which organized the protest, said Payson schools Superintendent Casey O’Brien at a budget briefing Wednesday.

Several other laws tacked onto the recently passed state budget allow school boards more local control, he added. Still other new laws, like the elimination of contract renewal deadlines, have some teachers nervous.

Many of the new rules seem aimed at helping districts in a near-bankrupt state save money.

Yet to be solved is a $1.2-billion deficit in a state whose economic recovery experts say could lag behind the national rebound. With education swallowing 43 percent of Arizona’s general fund, O’Brien says schools are bound to make forced sacrifices.

After the din of legislative bargaining quieted, schools received base level funding the same as 2009 after mid-year cuts, plus 2 percent.

The district also now has the option of holding a March over-ride election. The school board recently agreed it was unwise to ask the community for money during a recession, but O’Brien said Wednesday the district may have to risk it.

Millions of stimulus dollars meant to last through 2011 will run out next year, he said. Nobody knows when Arizona will again have cash.

Even when it does, “it’s not that all of a sudden it’s party time,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to bring doom and gloom, but it’s always better to be prepared.”

For now, school principals have been advised not to spend money on things like new textbooks. Although Payson’s $641,000 budget for soft capital — funds for textbooks, furniture and buses — stayed intact, O’Brien said the Legislature could grab it in January when work resumes to balance the budget.

That fear has Payson staying conservative despite the Legislature’s decision to allow districts to use their soft capital for regular operating expenses, a crossover traditionally prohibited.

New laws to take effect in November appear to reflect the legislators’ acknowledgement of uncertainty, although some teachers worry that they now carry that burden.

Deadlines for issuing teacher contracts have been eliminated, and districts can now reduce one tenured teacher’s salary without equitably reducing all tenured teachers’ salaries, as was previously required.

Also, a new law prohibits policies that make senior teachers safer from layoffs than their less experienced colleagues.

Arizona School Board Association lawyers will review the new laws, and then write policies, which the Payson schools will likely adopt.

Teacher Larry Potvin worried that older, more experienced teachers who receive top pay could be laid off en masse and replaced with younger, cheaper teachers.

“I’m being bold about this,” he said of his interpretation, adding that he felt the Legislature eliminated due process.

“From a Machiavellian perspective, it’s a great idea,” O’Brien said. Realistically, he added, moves like massive senior teacher layoffs fail to inspire loyalty or excellence.

Few teachers would want to work for a district that once swept its most experienced staff. Also, the likelihood of such a move diminishes in a small town like Payson where board members know teachers well, O’Brien said.

“I encourage you all not to get paranoid about this,” he added.

In other new rules, district boards can now set their own qualifications for superintendent. Previously, a special certification was required.

“All you need to be superintendent is a fingerprint clearance card,” said O’Brien.

A person from the back of the crowd muttered, “isn’t that the stupidest thing?”

Theoretically, O’Brien said, the new law allows districts to cull leaders from the business world, ex-chief executive officers and the like with significant management experience but limited education experience.

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