When the Arizona Department of Education unexpectedly cut funding for the already hard-pressed Payson Unified School District by $95,000, with no warning and in the middle of the year, school officials were outraged.
PUSD Superintendent Casey O’Brien visited the state Capitol several times to meet with other districts facing cuts and appeal for a reprieve. The work has paid off.
The state’s plan to take away $1,600 per student enrolled in public school charter schools has been scrapped.
O’Brien received word from State Schools Superintendent John Huppenthal’s office late Monday night.
“I am very encouraged about the turn things are taking and appreciative that Huppenthal has recognized the inequity in what was being proposed,” O’Brien said. “I have expressed my gratitude to him for finding a secondary solution.”
The original cuts affected four school districts, including Payson. PUSD was set to lose $95,000, while the Vail School District would lose $1.2 million.
The latest proposed cuts come after Payson’s soft capital $618,000 allocation was reduced by $513,000 last year, said PUSD business manager Kathie Manning.
“That left us with $4,000 unencumbered for the year in soft capital, but we spent that to replace a bus engine last week, so we’re down to nothing.”
O’Brien, along with other superintendents, lobbied that the cuts were not fair Friday of last week and Monday.
O’Brien said the abrupt cuts could have caused major problems, especially since the district has already gone through two years of substantial reductions.
Last year, the district closed Frontier Elementary School, significantly increased class sizes and laid off teachers and staff.
“They were cutting money that we’ve essentially spent, so we would have had to go to our maintenance and operations budget,” he said.
O’Brien was especially angered because the state department of education singled out the four public districts with charter schools, but didn’t touch funding for private charters.
“We would certainly understand if we had to take our fair share, spread amongst all the districts, but actually what happened with the cuts is that other districts were seeing an increase in their capital budgets,” O’Brien said at Monday’s school board meeting.
Payson operates an alternative high school for a little less than 60 students as a charter school, partly to take advantage of the greater flexibility charter schools have under state law.
The district gets a base rate of $3,800 per charter school student compared to $5,400 for private charters. In addition, most private charter schools get an additional $800 per student because they are small schools that have higher overhead.
Under the proposed cuts, Payson would have only received the base rate of $3,800 per student, while most private charter schools would get closer to $7,800.
“Arizona is a strong proponent of choice and Payson has embraced that by offering a charter school option and more recently an online school. I am pro competition, but when the competition receives thousands of dollars more in funding per student, the game is rigged,” said O’Brien.
The cuts would have meant a heavy blow for Payson, but would have been especially crippling for the Vail School District near Tucson, which has four charter schools and has been touted as one of the top-performing districts in the state. The other districts affected were Casa Grande and Fort Thomas.
The proposed cuts came as the state department of education scrambled to implement a $188 million reduction in “soft capital” funding for districts statewide, which normally covers money districts use to buy things like textbooks and software. The state virtually eliminated all funding for such supplies, which cost Payson about $600,000.
As it happens, the “additional funding” for charter schools was tucked into the “soft capital” budget line at the state level, which provided the justification for the additional reductions.
O’Brien noted that the district successfully fought off an attempt by the state department of education to take away some $400,000 in funding for vocational education based on a technicality several years ago.
In addition, the district last year enlisted the help of the Gila County Attorney’s office to fight off a state department of education effort to deny teachers at the district’s charter school pay based on extra training and qualifications other teachers in the district receive.
While the district has dodged a budgetary bullet, donations remain one of the bright spots in the bleak budget.
Credit for Kids donations came in at $211,000, a 1-percent decrease from the previous year.
And cash donations to the district, not including Credit for Kids, totaled $155,000 last calendar year, providing a huge boost for the district, O’Brien said.
A large amount of donations go toward the high school and supporting athletic programs.