State Support, Local Control Top Issues For School Board

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The Payson Unified School District Board wants the Arizona School Boards Association to suit up and tilt some of the tallest windmills around.

The board recently adopted its priorities for changes in state law and polices that affect schools. Mostly, the board wants to reverse the mounting cuts in funding, while peeling back some of the mandates and policy requirements that have stripped school boards of effective control of local schools.

“We’ve got to stop them from continually taking power away from local school boards,” said board member Kim Pound.

The school boards association has sent surveys to every school board in the state and will combine the results to settle on its top legislative priorities for the upcoming year.

Projections suggest the state may end the current fiscal year with a small surplus, rather than facing the multi-billion-dollar deficits that produced deep cuts in state support for education in the current fiscal year.

However, the state will likely lose federal stimulus support, which last year provided about $500 extra per student — boosting per-student spending by maybe 10 percent.

The loss could prove especially serious for districts like Payson, which also got money from the U.S. Forest Service to compensate for the impact of having most of the property in the district owned by the federal government and therefore not paying property taxes.

This year may result in a cut in per-student spending for the third year running. Moreover, the state in the past three years has also all but eliminated funding for textbooks, supplies and capital improvements.

State funding has declined from $5,540 in 2009 to $5,024 this year, not counting about $500 per student in federal stimulus spending.

The board’s legislative priorities also called for an overhaul of those funding formulas to keep up with student growth and inflation — and to give local schools and voters

more control over their own budgets.

The board also wants the association’s lobbyists to fight to keep the state and federal governments from imposing more requirements without providing the money to pay for the changes.

The board’s agenda underscored the point recently when the school board adopted changes imposed by the Arizona Legislature in school policies on every imaginable subject. Just listing the policies the state made changes in went on for three pages on the board’s consent agenda.

The board also wants to press the Legislature to restore funding for all-day kindergarten. The Legislature cut $218 million in funding for extending the day in kindergarten, prompting many districts like Payson to charge parents hefty fees for all-day sessions. Studies suggest that extending the kindergarten day can provide big academic gains for students, especially students starting school with academic difficulties.

School districts get most of their money from property taxes and state general fund support, which the state collects and then gives back to the school districts according to a complicated formula. Districts like Payson with relatively low property values get extra funding through this “equalization” formula. This formula also forced a 50 percent increase in the district’s property tax rate this year in part because property values here declined only half as much as the state average.

Local voters can augment a district’s budget by approving a property tax surcharge through an override. Payson voters approved such an override two years ago, which reduced cuts and layoffs by providing an extra $1 million in the district’s $12 million budget.

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