Budget Batters Schools

Per-student spending still at 2006 levels

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The final state budget adopted last week brought little joy to the Payson Unified School District, although the Legislature’s latest reductions fell just short of the worst-case scenario.

After a long standoff with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, lawmakers approved an $8.6 billion budget that cut taxes on businesses and investments, but left per-student school funding stuck at 2006 levels.

Lawmakers did throw in $40 million to help ensure third-graders can read, which will yield an extra $80,000 to $90,000 for Payson schools, said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

“The governor largely capitulated to the Legislature with respect to education,” said O’Brien.

The reading readiness money will essentially boost base funding slightly, rather than going directly to reading programs for districts that have a lot of struggling third-graders. State reforms in two years will require districts to hold back any third-graders who can’t read at what amounts to a second-grade level.

Only 2 to 4 percent of Payson’s current third-graders would have trouble meeting that standard, compared to 15 to 30 percent in the worst-performing districts.

However, lawmakers approved no increase in the per-student base rate, already more than 25 percent below the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Utah and Idaho spend less per student, according to the Census Bureau report, compiled before the big Arizona education cuts of the past two years.

Gov. Brewer proposed no increase in that base rate, but did want to spend an extra $200 million on “soft capital” items like textbooks and classroom technology. The Legislature cut that increase back to $15 million.

If the Legislature had adopted Gov. Brewer’s original budget, Payson schools would have ended up with an extra $200,000 to $300,000, O’Brien estimated.

The school board approved six teacher layoffs and three teacher resignations two weeks ago in anticipation of bad news from the Legislature and a projected deficit of nearly $800,000. A little more than one-third of that shortfall stemmed from the loss of about 80 students and the state funding they would have generated.

O’Brien said the Legislature, for the third year running, provided almost no money for new facilities, textbooks, computers or other instructional materials.

Fortunately, Payson voters approved a property-tax-based bond issue to upgrade the district’s schools just before the downturn hit. The drop in property values statewide has left many districts unable to seek new voter-approved bonds, since they’re up against a state-imposed rate cap. The Legislature this session refused to lift that cap.

“Fortunately, we passed our bonds at a good time,” said O’Brien. “But there are districts now that don’t have any bonding capacity.”

The state had assumed responsibility for most school construction after a judge ruled unconstitutional the enormous difference in per-student spending based on assessed valuations from one district to another. However, in the past several years the Legislature has set aside very little money for school construction.

The state’s “school facilities board is not going to have any money to help schools in need of replacement of systems — and probably only a few million for even emergency repairs,” said O’Brien. “We’re going to see a lot of those systems breaking down in other districts, so we’re in an enviable position.”

However, Payson schools will have to struggle through another year with no money for textbooks, classroom supplies, computer software or other “soft capital.”

“So we can’t look for any kind of curriculum adoption — virtual, or paper, or any kind. We’re just going to have to try to maintain what we’ve got: That’s the order of the day.”

All told, K-12 schools will get about $3.46 billion in the 2012-13 state budget — which amounts to about 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

The budget did set aside a “rainy day” fund of about $450 million, which the Legislature insisted on as a hedge against the expiration of a $1 billion annual sales tax increase for education that expires in June of 2014.

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