Despite a rise in enrollment and a tiny increase in basic state aid, the Payson Unified School District could face a million-dollar shortfall in the upcoming budget, the weary school board learned this week.
The 2,400-student district needs about $15 million for basic operations and maintenance, but will likely end up with about $14 million. That’s a roughly $200,000 increase over last year, but less than the district needs to maintain all its existing programs.
The district will need to add at least one teaching position to cope with a new, class-size staffing model and the rising enrollment — which means no teacher layoffs or reductions for the first time in years.
The real crunch will come in the capital budget for facilities and transportation, because the state has basically stopped covering those needs. Four school buses are approaching 200,000 miles, the 20-year-old phone system is near collapse and the district has about half the money it needs just to keep up with building repairs.
“We’re in desperate straits,” said Chief Financial Officer Kathie Manning.
“This is something the state is going to have to look at very seriously,” said board member Barbara Underwood, after learning Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget includes a minimal 1.4 percent increase for inflation while all but eliminating capital funding for schools.
But Manning said schools can expect little from the Legislature this year, which has in the past cut school funding more deeply than Gov. Brewer has proposed.
“We have a lot of decisions to make,” she said of the steps the board must go through before adopting a budget for fiscal 2014-15 in May.
Still, the hold-the-line budget represents a welcome respite from the wrenching cuts that have dominated the board’s deliberations for the past four years. A steady decline in enrollment coupled with plunging state funding forced the district to lay off teachers and staff, shut down and sell Frontier Elementary School, eliminate funding for most extracurricular activities and accept a big increase in average class sizes — especially in the elementary school where it has the biggest impact on student learning.
By contrast this year, Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget includes a 1.4 percent increase in base funding — an inflation adjustment mandated by the voters and ordered by the courts. If approved by the Legislature, the district would get an extra $147,000.
In addition, the first rise in district’s enrollment in years should yield an extra $143,000, said Manning.
Moreover, the district will actually get a bonus in state funding due to the rising experience level of its teachers. The district has generally replaced teachers laid off or quitting with more experienced teachers. As a result, the district will get an extra $132,000 in funding from the state.
Those increases have offset other losses to prevent big cuts as the district struggles to maintain programs. For instance, the budget probably won’t include any raises for teachers. Moreover, the state will finish phasing out a career ladder plan that has in the past at least given teachers a pay boost when they get extra training and degrees.
The district will also have to come up with $1 million to put into benefits and employee insurance, making up for a similar amount taken out of the reserves for benefits shifted to the operating budget last year. The projections also show a $200,000 decline in funding for special education. The district still has one of the highest percentages of special education students in the state, but this year the district’s mix of special education students suffers a less severe set of diagnosed problems — which means less extra state funding.
The board will also have to decide whether to come up with money for extra programs and staffing requested by the school principals and departments. The transportation department wants an extra $94,000 to increase the hours of the bus drivers so they can qualify for benefits. Payson Elementary School wants an extra $48,000 to hire a school social worker. The district also wants an extra $33,000 to provide a psychologist to work with students having behavior problems at all four campuses.
So far, administrators have found about $400,000 in cuts. The only likely cut Manning revealed on Monday is the elimination of the $95,000 annual payment to consultants for the “Capture Kids Hearts” program. This training system embraced by former Superintendent Ron Hitchcock was intended to help teachers develop more supportive and trusting relationships with students.
The capital budget looks much more bleak, since the state Legislature assumed responsibility for school capital budgets in response to a court case several years ago, but has now stopped funding improvements.
The district has $1.4 million in capital needs, mostly the cost of replacing worn-out school buses and antiquated computer technology and phones. However, the projected budget totals about $500,000 — a daunting $852,000 short.
The board will have to decide whether to spend the bulk of the $1.2 million from the sale of Frontier to cover those needs.
On Tuesday look for a story detailing the district’s dwindling capital budget in the wake the state budget cuts.