School Bracing For A Significant Budget Gap

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Outgoing superintendent Casey O’Brien will update the school board at its April 9 meeting on proposed budget gaps.

The district will probably suffer further cuts in the next budget year due to the loss of 60 students and proposed state legislative cuts, said O’Brien.

“In a time of austerity, everybody is concerned,” said O’Brien in an interview.

O’Brien said he will not have specific budget shortfall numbers to report until all unknown variables, such as changes in employee health care benefit costs, have been determined.

However, he said that once the numbers come in, he’ll draw up a budget that gives priority to elementary schools in accordance with board priorities.

When the board closed Frontier Elementary and consolidated its students into the remaining two elementary schools, class sizes increased in some cases to more than 30 students, O’Brien said.

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Casey O'Brien

“We have to seek equity because the board indicated they want to protect elementary class size,” O’Brien said.

With the reality of an austere budget looming, O’Brien said cuts would have to come from somewhere.

Career Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator Wendell Stevens expressed concerns in an interview that the district will cut from the high school budget.

Because some of the CTE classes have only been filled with six students, Stevens expressed concern CTE programs could be cut.

Stevens blames the six-class-period day for severely limiting students’ ability to sign up for CTE classes.

In the past, the high school had seven periods, but state-funding requirements forced the school to increase class time to one hour in core subjects, which decreased the number of class periods available.

With increased graduation requirements and many upper-level CTE classes requiring two class periods, enrollment in CTE has plummeted, Stevens said.

“When the district went from seven to six periods, it took away 700 choices (students) per year,” he said, “That’s a loss of 2,800 over four years.”

But Stevens recognizes assets must be shifted to make ends meet.

The state does have a budget surplus this year, primarily from the one-cent sales tax voters approved in 2010 through Proposition 100.

The governor would like to use the surplus to aid cash-strapped schools, but the Legislature wants to tuck that money away to prepare for the end of that supplemental tax in June of 2013, O’Brien said.

Adding to the school board’s frustration with the Legislature, state representatives voted to increase tax breaks for individuals donating money to student tuition organizations (STO) to include private schools.

The legislation allows individuals to donate to STOs that grant money to students needing help with private school tuition. The concept is similar to Credit for Kids, the $400 tax credit donors may take when they write a check to a public school to help extra-curricular activities.

The Legislature increased STO donation amounts from $500 per individual to $1,000. Married couples may now donate $2,000.

Tuition goes directly to fund private school teacher salaries, overhead and maintenance costs, yet the bill allows for 90 percent to go to scholarships and 10 percent to STOs for administrative costs, O’Brien said.

In its meeting on Monday, March 26, the Payson School Board voted to have O’Brien ask the Arizona School Boards Association to advocate for a match on the donation amounts individuals could make to public schools.

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