Don’t freeze in the headlights of the oncoming budget truck, Payson Unified School District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock advised the school board this week.
Granted, the billion dollars “sucked out of education” by state budget cuts in the past few years translates into a loss of about $2.3 million for Payson.
But the district must still use the money it has to achieve its most important goals, Hitchcock said in making the pitch for a budget that triages its top priorities, like a battlefield doctor sorting the wounded.
“Instead of sitting down in the face of all these cuts and saying ‘I don’t even know what to do with this,’ let’s move forward,” said Hitchcock. “What are our priorities? Don’t get caught up in trying to fix something that’s already in the rearview mirror. Hire quality teachers. Hire quality staff. If you have good teachers, you can teach school in a barn and achieve your goals. If you have dim bulbs, you can have the best building and facilities in the world and you’re not going to get student achievement.”
“That’s the only smart way we can do it,” agreed board member James Quinlan. “The quality of the staff determines the quality of the school: bottom line.”
The discussion served as an introduction to Hitchcock’s “priority-based” budgeting. He told the board he would rate almost every expenditure by the likely impact on student achievement so the board can ration the money available.
Hitchcock noted that Arizona ranked last in per-student spending even before the Legislature started making deep cuts. National studies show that in the last three years Arizona has made deeper proportionate cuts in both K-12 and university funding than any other state.
The per-year cuts have included $218 million for all-day kindergarten, $29 million for vocational education for high school freshmen, $23 million for teacher pay incentives for extra training, $238 million for “soft capital” like textbooks and computer programs, $360 million to cover cost increases due to inflation and $200 million for buildings and infrastructure.
On a per-student basis, that represents a roughly $2.3 million reduction in Payson’s roughly $16 million budget.
“Can you imagine what we’d be doing with that kind of money,” interjected board president Barbara Underwood, who has served on the board through three rounds of teacher layoffs and the closure of Frontier Elementary School.
The decision to close Frontier to save about $500,000 annually in facilities cost caused a big increase in elementary school class sizes, although research shows small classes in elementary school generally yield significantly higher student achievement.
Hitchcock noted that Arizona spends $8,694 per student, compared to a national average of $11,824 per student — a difference of more than $3,000 per student. It would add about $7.3 million annually to Payson’s budget if it received the national, per-student average.
“We’re dead last in spending per pupil,” said Hitchcock, “and the gap is widening.”
The district’s employees have faced a salary freeze for the past four years, except for a one-time bonus this year from a federal grant. Most teachers have not even received promised pay boosts for extra training and degrees.
Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed a 2013-14 budget that would not pile on new cuts in state support for K-12 schools, but also wouldn’t replace money lost in recent years.
Projections suggest the state will end the current fiscal year in June with a $343 million surplus thanks to a heartening rise in state tax revenues from the depth of the recession, which caused a collapse of the state’s sales-tax-based revenues.
Gov. Brewer’s proposed budget includes about $9 billion in general fund spending, including about $315 million in new spending, much of it devoted to K-12 education.
The bulk of the new spending remains connected to various state and federally mandated reforms. That includes $42 million to implement the new, national Common Core academic standards, $36 million to provide extra money for schools whose students do well on standardized tests, $4 million for school safety, $20 million for new technology to do the testing needed for Common Core standards, $22 million for a school accountability program and $4 million for new school construction.
The Legislature has not yet acted on Gov. Brewer’s budget. Most of the budget discussions have centered on Gov. Brewer’s plan to expand the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to capture about $1.4 billion in additional federal spending.
Given the limits on funding, Hitchcock said the district must prioritize.
“We have to establish our priority objectives. If you don’t think money makes a difference, think what we would do if we had an extra $2.3 million. So we prioritize chunks and say, we will fully fund this staffing model.”
One board member asked whether the schools would face another round of cuts this year from the state.
“I hear some people recently elected saying ‘we’re going to take care of schools.’ I hear people who have a been around awhile saying ‘it’s smoke and mirrors.’
“But no matter how much money the district gets, the school board should set the priorities.”
As one example, numerous studies show that all-day kindergarten has more impact on test scores of first- and second-graders than almost any other intervention — especially for children from low-income families. However, the Legislature cut funding for all-day kindergarten. Parents can pay extra for all-day kindergarten, but that tends to exclude the children who need it most.
Ironically, the Legislature has also imposed a new requirement that schools hold back any third-graders reading well below grade level. Not only did the Legislature provide only minimal added funding to boost elementary school reading programs, it cut the $215 million that enabled schools to offer all-day kindergarten, which has been shown to significantly boost reading skills.
Despite the state’s action, the district should fund programs clearly proven to boost achievement, said Hitchcock. Therefore, the school board may decide to fund all-day kindergarten by shifting the money from other programs if the research shows that program would do the most to boost student achievement, he said.
“When you say ‘what do we cut?’ I say, wait. Stop. What does the research show? What will increase student achievement?”
Hitchcock presented the board with a proposed staffing model, which he said he based on national research on student achievement. The model envisioned a continued slow decline in enrollment, little change in the central office staffing and a roughly 10 to 15 percent decline in total staff positions. However, the model could end up actually increasing the number of teachers, add a person at each school responsible for organizing volunteers and involving the community and someone at each school focused on student achievement. That would include things like tracking student progress through testing, identifying students faltering in certain areas and feeding teachers the latest research on boosting student scores.
The model also called for one administrator at each elementary school and the middle school and two administrators at the high school.
Overall, the student/staff ratio would increase from the present 8.4 students for each full-time staff member to 9.2 students per full-time staff member.
The model also assumed lower average class sizes than at present. The model calls for a range of average class sizes from a low of 20 at Payson Elementary School to 24 at Julia Randall Elementary School. Currently, class sizes average closer to 26-32.
Hitchcock stressed that the district would likely rely on attrition and personnel shifts to move to the new staffing model over time.
“Once we give you our priorities,” said board member Rory Huff, “do you and your team come back with a staffing model?”
“So you can look at class sizes,” said Quinlan, “especially in English and math and science — because that’s where we’re being tested. The hot point is going to be later, when people start getting nervous about their contracts ... but if we follow the research, we’re heading in the right direction.”