They came to the school budget workshop session worried about waste, accountability and budget limits.
They left daunted by the complexity of coming up with a workable school budget in the face of conflicting and constricting state and federal requirements — and a steady decline in resources in the worst funded public school system in the country.
Payson Unified School District Finance Director Kathie Manning made an exhaustive, five-hour presentation on Saturday to a group of about eight people who’d asked for the budget session. Most of the members of the citizen groups were leading activists in the Payson Tea Party — including current board member Shirley Dye and school board candidate Darlene Younker. None of the other school board members attended.
Newly hired Superintendent Greg Wyman did attend, along with District Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case. The session offered one of the first opportunities to see the genial Wyman in action since his hiring. He doesn’t officially start work until next month.
The group came armed with questions about Payson’s rankings on a state auditor general’s report that showed the district’s food service and transportation costs higher than comparable districts.
Manning explained that the district intends to rebid its food services contract on a per-meal basis to lower those costs, covered almost entirely with federal funds. She said state auditors had already concluded that the district’s above-average transportation costs reflect the size of the attendance area relative to the number of students.
But mostly, the attendees left with a new appreciation for the complexity of juggling all the different budget categories, dealing with an avalanche of state and federal requirements, programs and reporting rules — and coping with big decreases in state support in recent years.
50th in per-student spending
State funding of K-12 schools in Arizona now stands at 50th nationally, about 40 percent of the average. The state has also all but eliminated funding for school capital improvements, despite a court order ordering the establishment of a system that equalizes funding between rich and poor districts. The state also makes it almost impossible for school districts to get bonds approved to pay for their own capital improvements through local property taxes.
Manning worked her way methodically through the budget process. This year the district has a total of about $17 million to spend — or about $7,000 per student. About $13.8 million goes in to the general operating budget, $874,612 goes into a separate classroom fund that augments teacher salaries, less than $600,000 goes for capital improvements. Salaries account for about 85 percent of district spending, with about 130 teachers and certified employees out of a total of about 230 employees overall.
‘It just seems insane to me’
Younker commented, “It seems like $17 million should be enough to run a school district. But when you learn about the budget and how it works. When you find out there are so many restricted funds. It just seems insane to me. It seems to me we would be much more efficient and wouldn’t require a lot more money if we had unrestricted funds. Here’s your money — you do what you need to do in your local district. It seems to me that’s where we ought to concentrate some effort.”
Wyman agreed, raising the example of the evolution of charter schools to illustrate his point. The state Legislature passed laws making it as easy as possible to set up charter schools in Arizona. The schools can’t have a religious purpose and have to take any student who applies. But they get the same basic per-student funding, plus more than $1,000 extra for every youngster enrolled. Along with the extra money, charter schools don’t have to abide by many of the expensive regulations and reporting requirements that afflict public schools.
‘... tighten the strings over here’
Wyman said, “The Legislature reasoned if we give money to people and they’re creative and innovative they’ll do things that the restrictions on K-12 won’t allow. So they continue to loosen the strings over there and tighten the strings over here,” he said in reference to the slew of new regulations on K-12 schools. For instance, this year, schools will have to hold back third-graders reading well below grade level. At the same time, the Legislature only narrowly rejected a move to deny district-run charter schools the extra money privately run charter schools get.
“You have to remember we have a million kids in K-12 — only about 100,000 in private and charter schools,” continued Wyman. “You would think if this is so successful then, why don’t you replicate it over here? What you’re seeing in the Legislature — they’ll pull it out as soon as you get it.”
In fact, he said Arizona’s public schools have achieved good results at the lowest cost in the country. On most standardized tests, Arizona students score squarely in the middle while on all financial measurements the schools rank at the bottom.
“When you look at how our kids compete, this state has done a better job than a whole lot of other states. Our scores are in the median across the country. So it sounds like we’re doing more with less and we should be held up as a model across the country.”
Younker countered, “That’s also a good argument for saying throwing more money is not always the solution.”
‘What’s fallen by the wayside ...’
Manning then interjected, “What’s fallen by the wayside is all of the capital. We spend taxpayer bond money to build a facility and then can’t afford to operate it,” she said in apparent reference to Frontier Elementary School, which the district closed to save about $500,000 in annual operating costs. The closure forced a big increase in elementary school class sizes, despite studies showing small classes in elementary grades boost student achievement.
Wyman said the failure to fund capital improvements while slashing per-student spending overall will cause increasing differences between rich and poor districts. The Arizona Supreme Court declared the old, property-tax-dependent system unconstitutional because of the gap between rich districts and property-tax-poor districts like Payson.
Under the revamped system, Payson gets an extra $2.6 million from the state above the roughly $11.5 million it gets from property taxes for its $13.8 million operating budget.
Now, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer again,” said Wyman.
He said the few school buildings built after the state took over the capital funding for schools have been built to the lowest possible construction standards — and the Legislature has taken away even that money now.
‘There’s going to be another lawsuit ...’
“There’s going to be another lawsuit sometime in the next 10 years. You’re getting the same disparity we had 10 or 15 years ago.
Wyman said that schools are doing far more than in decades past. The high school graduation rate has gone from about 50 percent to about 75 percent and schools now offer expensive programs for students with disabilities and other problems. About 20 percent of Payson’s students qualify for extra funding through the special education program, roughly double the state average.
“Kids in high school are taking math that in the ’50s and ’60s you’d be taking in college. What kids are doing in classes to compete in the world today is better than it has ever been. Doesn’t mean we can’t do things a little different — but sometimes we forget about that.
‘... kids are doing better than ever’
“In the old days, the only people you were going to be competing against were from Payson — now you’re competing against the world. In the ’50s and ’60s, the high school graduation rate was less than 50 percent — and all those people who didn’t graduate had someplace to go to. You could get a job and stay with the same company for life. Now kids are going to have 16 or 18 jobs in their lifetimes and the high school graduation rate is 75 percent.
“Now you have kids that are exposed to stuff they’ve never been exposed to before. Special education has only been around since the late ’60s. In those days, lots of those kids didn’t come to school. Now you’ve opened school to everybody, which is fantastic — but it takes some time to bring those kids forward. I would argue that kids today are doing better than they have ever done.”
As the five-hour session drew to a close, Manning asked, “Did you get the information you were looking for?”
“Yep,” quipped Dick Williams, “and a little bit more.”