Arizona districts make tough choices on spending first Prop. 123 funds
Many Arizona teachers and school staff members are starting the school year with bigger paychecks, and some even have extra dollars in their pockets from one-time bonuses. Both have come as a result of the passage of Prop. 123 by Arizona voters in a May special election.
But some school districts are using some of the funds to meet other pressing needs as well, such as restoring classes and programs that had been cut, purchasing classroom resources and technology, replacing out-of-date textbooks, making overdue facility repairs and even replacing old buses.
District leaders say such spending had been deferred for years as a result of budget cuts and the state’s failure to fund school districts to cover the costs of inflation, which was at the heart of the Prop. 123 measure.
Use of the funds, which will total $3.5 billion over 10 years of distribution, is unrestricted, enabling school district governing boards to allocate the money to meet the varied needs and priorities of their local schools.
Kyrene Elementary School District will spend its Prop. 123 money in “areas hardest hit by the reductions in funding over the past several years” and in keeping with the district’s strategic plan, said Jeremy Calles, chief financial officer for the district that serves about 17,762 Tempe and Phoenix students.
To support its focus on learning and instructional staff, the majority will be spent on boosting staff compensation, but Prop. 123 funds will support students and classrooms in other ways as well.
“We were able to make good on a promise to the community to return to a middle-school schedule that offers students an opportunity to participate in elective classes, including art, music and physical education every school day, as opposed to only two times a week,” Calles said.
The majority of
Sahuarita Unified School District’s $2.5 million first Prop. 123 dollars for the current year will go to five percent pay raises for teachers and staff, but the district’s school board designated $500,000 to purchase critical instructional resources and technology, and make the most urgent facility repairs, said Manuel Valenzuela, superintendent of the school district in Pima County in a Green Valley News article.
Valenzuela cited continuing large reductions in the “district additional assistance,” the funding the state provides to districts for building repairs, instructional resources and technology as the reason 20 percent of the Prop. 123 dollars were directed to these needs.
Voter approval of Prop. 123 settled the seven-year-old school inflation funding lawsuit filed by public schools that didn’t receive the funds due from from voter-approved Prop. 301 during the Great Recession. The plan increases the percentage of earnings from the state land trust investment fund that goes to public K-12 education for the next 10 years and provides schools about 70 percent of what they are owed.
Raising teachers’ salaries
After reviewing salaries in East Valley school districts, Tempe Elementary used its Prop. 123 money to increase teachers’ salaries, make other school staffers’ wages more competitive and set aside a little bit for any contingency, said Christine Busch, superintendent of the district that serves 11,800 students.
“There’s nothing more important than our teachers in our children’s lives. They single-handedly help our kids succeed and improve student achievement,” Busch said. “Without highly qualified teachers who love kids and who are passionate, motivated and excited about giving children every opportunity to succeed, we can’t do what we do every day in public education.”
Returning Tempe Elementary teachers’ salaries increased an additional $3,257 plus a one-percent raise to better retain them for sticking with the district through the economic downturn, declining enrollment, and the closure of four schools, Busch said.
“In years where we weren’t able to give more than just a cost of living raise, teachers still just kept coming back day in and day out and doing what was best for children and keeping our district strong,” Busch said. “They really deserve to have (this raise).”
Many school districts raised their starting teacher salaries, as well as giving current teachers one-time raises.
Tempe Elementary also increased starting teacher salaries from $34,743 to $38,000 to help recruit more educators. Busch said the school board’s goal is to raise it to $40,000 next year.
Many teachers have second jobs, and “we were hoping that this would relieve some of the stress that they have in their lives of trying to make ends meet, because they do so much for so many others,” Busch said.
Busch said she’s been at two or three schools every day since school began and the staff have let her know they’re happy and they feel valued.
“Money – a good amount of money – makes a difference,” Busch said. “It takes some of the stress off their personal lives. It allows them to feel hope that the public appreciates them. It’s made a huge difference in morale. It’s also made a huge difference for us in recruiting and attracting highly qualified staff.”
Sierra Vista Unified School District’s teachers and staff will receive a pay increase in mid-September from the district’s Prop. 123 money, “because the teachers and support staff have not had raises in such a long time,” said Mike Conley, finance director for the district that serves about 6,028 students in Cochise County.
“When we went to the board, we specifically asked the board to approve the budget, which includes the one-time bonus of $1,200 to each employee who was with us from the start of last year and who are, in fact, on board with us still in September of this year,” Conley said.
Employees who started after January 4, 2016, will receive a one-time bonus of $600 if they remained in their position at the end of last school year, Conley said. Employees eligible for a step increase will receive that at the beginning of this school year, Conley said.
Many school districts like Peoria Unified and Kyrene Elementary who gave teachers raises with Prop. 123 money, also used the funds for instructional resources.
About $2.9 million of Peoria Unified’s $7,302,471 in 2015-16 Prop. 123 money was used for instructional resources for the classroom, specifically the district’s math resource and text adoption, said Ken Hicks, chief financial officer of the northwest Maricopa County district that serves around 36,340 students.
But most of the district’s $4.4 million voter-approved funds was used to increase all staff pay. For 2016-17 and beyond, Prop. 123 money will provide Peoria Unified “a base-pay increase for all staff of 4.31 percent, which is about $6.1 million, about $750,000 for instructional resources and about $400,000 for special education staffing,” Hicks said.
About $2 million of Kyrene’s $6.6 million in Prop. 123 money for 2015-16 and 2016-17 combined will be used to purchase instructional resources to replace obsolete materials such as textbooks and supporting instructional materials, Calles said.
About 1.4 million will be spent on restoring school budgets for site-specific spending and the hiring of essential support personnel.
“We funded the purchase of much-needed instructional resources, and an increase in school budgets to allow for the hiring of crossing guards and staff for lunch and recess duty,” Calles said.
But $2.2 million – which is the bulk of Kyrene’s voter-approved funds – will be used for increased staff compensation, with $1.55 million going to teachers, $500,000 to support staff and $150,000 to administration, Calles said.
The plan also addressed compensation for instructional staff, “advancing a three-year plan to make salaries more competitive with other districts and to improve employee recruitment and retention,” Calles said.
Kyrene will also restore $1 million in certified staff salaries and supplies that were reduced when the frequency of middle school electives (specials) decreased, and the district will expand some elective subjects.
“We were able to make good on a promise to the community to return to a middle-school schedule that offers students an opportunity to participate in elective classes (including art, music, physical education) every school day, as opposed to only two times a week,” Calles said.
Books, building and buses
But many other Arizona school districts facing budget pressures chose to use their Prop. 123 money for needs as well as teacher raises and instructional support.
In Douglas Unified, 69 percent of their Prop. 123 funds will be used for debt reduction, technology and other items, while 14 percent will go to teacher raises of about $400 each, according to The Arizona Republic article.
The Toltec School District’s governing board decided to use part of their approximately $247,000 in Prop. 123 money to avoid staff layoffs and considered giving the rest to teachers as a one-time stipend to help them pay for classroom supplies, according to a story in the Arizona City Independent.
Chino Valley Unified School District’s governing board will spend the $482,539 in Prop. 123 money on an average raise of 3.2 percent for its teachers and staff, and it will also use funds for capital improvements, including buying a special needs bus, according to a Chino Valley Review article.
Bullhead City Elementary and Colorado River Union High School districts in Mohave County gave teachers a six percent raise from Prop. 123 money, and the funds have “also immediately benefited district technology, facility improvements and transportation, allowing the districts to purchase new buses, according to The Mohave Daily News.
Competitive salaries for other key staff
Many districts are also using Prop. 123 to make the salaries of other school staff competitive as well.
Sunnyside Unified School District’s school board raised teacher’s salaries 8.5 percent with their Prop. 123 funds, and they also increased wages for classified employees by 6.5 percent, professional non-teaching employees by 6.2 percent and administrators by 3.75 percent, according to a Tucson News Now article.
After reviewing salary studies of other East Valley districts, Tempe Elementary’s counselors, school psychologists, social services providers, health service staff, specialists, administrators and classified staff received raises as well, Busch said.
“We knew that we were starting to fall out of being competitive with surrounding districts and we wanted to apply the standard fairly,” Busch said.
Humboldt Unified School District’s meet and confer committee developed a plan to put the bulk of its Pro. 123 money for employees’ salaries and wages, said Dan Streeter, superintendent of the Prescott Valley school district with 5,860 students in Yavapai County.
“In short, we put $1 million of the $1.2 million directly into salaries and wages, and extended the hours for our custodial staff and computer lab aides,” Streeter said. “Additionally, we transitioned two teacher-on-assignment positions to assistant principal positions. The additional dollars have been carried over.”
Though Prop. 123 funds are bringing relief, other state-level funding issues continue to make funding uncertain. The district is “monitoring the effects of current year funding and continued reductions in district additional assistance (capital) funding,” Streeter said.
After Prop. 123 was approved by voters, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said it was just the first step in increasing education funding in the state.
“We are also waiting to hear what (steps) 4, 5, and 6 will be, now that 1, 2, 3 passed,” Streeter said.
Arizona voters are also saying the same thing, which was confirmed by a recent poll in which 76 percent of Arizona voters polled supported increased funding for Arizona public schools.
A coalition of Arizona educators, business leaders and parents would like to see the Arizona Legislature restore the $1.2 billion in K-12 public education funding that has been cut since the Great Recession.
“It’s like they (state legislators) rob Peter to pay Paul,” Conley said. “You end up with still less than you had before. It’s unfortunate, it’s something we as a state should address.”
The state legislature reduced by 85 percent the amount that Sierra Vista Unified School District should have received for capital funding this year, and “it’s been that way for the past five to six years,” Conley said. “It’s unfortunate. All the schools are facing these issues. It’s very hard to manage that.”
So the Sierra Vista Unified School District governing board passed a resolution for a bond election this fall, Conley said.
“Groups are working on Proposition 456 and the capital lawsuit is pending, so no one should regard Prop. 123 as the finish line when we still aren’t restored to the funding level we were at a decade ago,” Calles said.