‘Starving Education To Death’

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Barbara Fitzgerald

Retiring Payson Unified School District Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald took her leave after seven years in Payson on Monday with a heartfelt address to the school board that drew a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.

“I want to say that it is my opinion that public education is under attack from many fronts,” said Fitzgerald, who directs the special education, intervention and research programs for the district. “It is, I believe, critical to the continuation of the America I grew up in. I am concerned that the Arizona Legislature is slowly starving public education to death. It is in your hands to assign action and dollars to the programs that matter for students. I challenge and encourage you to keep students first in your minds and hearts, not just their test scores, but their whole person and their future needs.”

Fitzgerald has directed the district’s special education program and several key intervention programs. A surprising 18 percent of the district’s students qualify as special education students, compared to a state average of about 12 percent. Fitzgerald reported recently that only 38 percent of the district’s special education students are meeting their state-mandated learning goals, thanks in part to a steady increase in the state requirements. The district gets extra money for special education students, but may soon face big problems since new state and federal mandates don’t exempt special education students from the standardized test scores and calculations likely to affect district funding and teacher evaluations.

The district has 40 special education teachers and about 40 special education aides, but may lose many of those aides as a result of recent shifts in district budget priorities.

Fitzgerald’s comments come in the wake of four years of deep cuts in per-student spending in Arizona. The National Center for Budget Priorities did a study that showed Arizona has cut education spending by 22 percent since 2008; the deepest percentage cuts in the nation. The state trimmed spending by $783 per student.

Gov. Jan Brewer has proposed a roughly $9 billion budget plan that would provide modest increases for K-12 schools, for the first time in four years. The increase includes a court-ordered boost of $80 million to adjust for inflation as directed by a voter-approved initiative. Brewer’s budget would also include $41 million in new spending on the national Common Core academic standards and $36 million to begin phasing in a system to pay more per student based on an increase in test scores.

Republicans who don’t want to accept federal money to add 400,000 people to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System have stalled Gov. Brewer’s budget.

Senate President Andy Biggs this week introduced a budget similar to Brewer’s, but without the AHCCCS expansion.

Fitzgerald’s parting words reverberated in the shadow of that debate and the sweeping changes in the district’s administrative ranks designed to boost student scores on standardized tests.

She praised teachers and support staff for providing “quality support for more with less resource.”

And she ended with a challenge: “I want to encourage staff here present to continue to speak and act for the students we work with daily, if you don’t, who will?”

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