The state’s new $11.8 billion budget nearly doubled the reserve fund, increased spending by 11 percent and cut taxes by nearly $500 million — but gave the state’s schools much less than they’d hoped for in light of the state’s booming economy.
Payson could get more money to whittle away at $12 million in deferred capital needs as well as money to boost teacher pay by about 5 percent — but may not qualify for some of the other increases for education like counselors and security, said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Greg Wyman.
Moreover, the district will get $70,000 less than it hoped for from federal forest fees, due to Gila County School Superintendent Roy Sandoval’s push to set aside more money for adult education. Payson learned about that shortfall last week. However, the shortage won’t affect the budget until next year.
The state budget, however, will have immediate consequences.
“The budget will provide some additional dollars for school districts in general,” said Wyman. “The stipulations on the different aspects of the budget may limit how much the Payson district will receive. The district will receive additional funds for capital items. This is not technically new money, but rather speeding up the five-year timeline to fully fund the formula, which has not been fully funded in over a decade.”
The district can most likely follow through on a preliminary board decision to boost teacher salaries by about 5 percent, classified staff salaries by about 4 percent and administrative salaries by about 10 percent.
The state budget prompted another year of stark partisan differences, with Democrats unanimous in their opposition. One Republican voted against the budget, mostly because he wanted more tax cuts. The budget proved mostly a disappointment for education advocates, who hoped the state’s rise in tax revenue would help boost Arizona from ranking 48th in per-student school funding nationally.
Instead, lawmakers opted to double reserves to about $1 billion, which they hope will avoid another round of cuts should the state lapse again into recession. Arizona’s revenues dropped by a third during the last recession.
Lawmakers also did nothing to either limit taxpayer dollars funding vouchers for private school tuition nor did they enact major increases in oversight for charter schools.
The budget did include $30 million in increased funding for social workers, counselors and police officers on campus.
Payson may not qualify for the new money, said Wyman.
“Depending on the criteria, Payson may — or may not — qualify,” said Wyman. “If the district does qualify, it will be on a competitive basis with all public school districts and charter schools competing for the money.”
Wyman welcomed the Legislature’s decision to put money into the court-ordered system for financing capital improvements, like public safety improvements, added classroom space and building maintenance. Lawmakers have refused to fund the capital improvements formula for years, resulting in an estimated $2.5 billion shortfall, according to the Arizona School Boards Association.
A consultant recently put Payson’s deferred capital improvements needs at $12 million and said the district would need to spend about $3 million annually to catch up. The district instead has a capital budget of about $300,000.
Education advocates had hoped the state would finally make strides on restoring some $4.5 billion in K-12 funding cuts that have accumulated since the recession.
Highlights of the budget include:
• Money for a 5 percent teacher pay raise, part of a three-year, 20 percent raise.
• The phase out of a $32 vehicle registration fee over the next two years.
• Roughly $130 million to help expand Interstate 17 over the next three years.
• Some $15 million to help the state’s universities train more teachers.
• About $20 million to hire more officers to work on campus or school counselors.
• Substantial raises for prison guards, highway patrol officers and Department of Child Safety caseworkers. This includes $11 million to hire 48 new state troopers.
• $1.6 million to eliminate the freeze on KidsCare, which provides health insurance for children from low-income families.
• Lawmakers tripled their daily expense allowance.
The Republican-controlled Legislature gave Gov. Doug Ducey most of what he sought, but rejected virtually every single amendment or spending bill offered by Democrats.
As a result, the Republicans needed the vote of all but one Republican lawmaker to pass a budget. Two Republicans held up adoption of the budget when they insisted the Legislature pass a bill giving the victims of child sexual assault more time to sue their abuser.
Republicans hailed the budget as a return to fiscal responsibility, with a big increase in the contingency fund for future emergencies and continued tax cuts to keep the economy strong.
But Democrats bemoaned the tax cuts and lack of support for education in a state that ranks 48th in per-student spending, with low teacher salaries and large class sizes.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley (D-Tucson) in a statement said, “We had an opportunity this session to work in a bipartisan way and take the next big step, building upon 20 by 2020, in restoring funding to our desperately underfunded classrooms. Instead, this budget puts funding for Arizona schools at serious risk with the sunset of the Trump tax cuts in 2025, the looming Prop. 123 cliff that same year and the possibility of a future recession. Permanently forgoing this revenue for a half billion dollar tax cut is irresponsible.”
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman also criticized the budget.
“This year, the state made some movements in the right direction by funding several K-12 education initiatives, including giving schools more money to spend on new counselors, the next installment of the promised 20 by 2020 teacher raises, and increased funding to address our teacher shortage by training the next generation of educators. However, it is disheartening to see another tax cut of nearly $400 million when Arizona’s education spending remains among the lowest in the nation.”
She also worried that the budget didn’t furnish enough money to provide oversight of charter schools or the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), school vouchers for private schools.
“While the department received critical funds needed to begin upgrading our school finance payment system, currently running on outdated 1990’s technology, many of our budget requests were not granted. We were not given the spending authority for anywhere close to what is needed to manage the ESA program effectively and efficiently,” said Hoffman.
The budget did include $400,000 in new funding in FY 20 and FY 21 for the Arizona Charter Schools Board, enough for 10 new staff members.
Expect More Arizona, an educational advocacy group, hailed the increases for counselors, capital spending, school security and teacher raises. However, the budget left needs unaddressed, including:
• The state needed $56 million as matching money to attract federal Child Care Development Block Grants, but the money didn’t wind up in the budget.
• The budget did include $136 million for school capital needs, but deferred another $140 million to fully fund the formula.
• The budget includes an extra $10 million for career and technical education, with a $1,000 incentive for each student who graduates with an approved industry certification.
• The budget included $20 million for school resource officers and counselors.
• The budget includes $88 million for building renewal, which includes $25 million in supplemental funding in the current fiscal year.