AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students
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AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students

Amy Fuller And Julie Bacon

Many Arizona public school leaders have met with legislators and urged community members to contact their elected representatives in response to Governor Doug Ducey’s proposed education cuts which include a five percent reduction in non-classroom spending.

“I understand that during tough economic times everyone needs to make sacrifices, but for over five years public schools and our children have taken the brunt of the state’s cuts,” said Dr. Ken Baca, superintendent of Tempe Union High School District.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students AmyFullerAndJulieBaconInside

Amy Fuller, left, superintendent of Florence Unified School District, talks with Julie Bacon, right, Paradise Valley Unified School District Governing Board Member during the Day at the Capitol on Tuesday, February 25, 2015.

Ducey’s Executive Budget Proposal reduces the funding to districts and the students they serve by an estimated $120 per student, according to a letter to Arizona legislators signed by 233 school district superintendents who are members of the Arizona Association of School Administrators.

“While the governor has voiced the need for a strong public education system to help build our economy, his current budget recommendations would take Arizona public schools in a completely different direction,” said Eugene Dudo, superintendent of Glendale Union High School District.

Dr. Denton Santarelli, superintendent of Peoria Unified School District has urged community members and parents to tell elected officials what this means for students.

“The impact of further cuts on public education will have a ripple effect on our state for generations,” Santarelli said.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students ArizonaStateCapitol

The Arizona State Capitol. Photo by Mike Barcia/Arizona School Boards Association

Districts throughout Arizona have painstakingly cut their budgets over the past six years, because of cuts from the state or the failure to pass overrides.

“The notion that we can get more dollars to classrooms while cutting funding to education is absurd,” said Dr. Paul Tighe, superintendent of Mingus Union High School District in Yavapai County. “Furthermore, to then require superintendents to attest that the cuts did not impact instruction would be asking us to lie.”

The proposed cuts would take an additional $3 million from Glendale Union High School District on top of the $20 million in cuts the district has already suffered, Dudo said.

“Not only will these proposed cuts hamper our ability to maintain and take care of our existing facilities and staff, they will also be occurring at a time when we are implementing new, educator supported, Arizona College and Career Ready Standards,” Dudo said.

The governor’s office portrays this as a cut to administrative expenses, but Arizona already has among the lowest per-pupil administrative expenditure in the nation, Dudo said.

Arizona’s administration costs of $746 per pupil in 2013 remain at 65 percent of the national average of $1,138, because Arizona school districts pay lower administrator salaries and employ fewer, according to a report from the Arizona Office of the Auditor General.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students 2015ArizonaLegislatorsatDayAtTheCapitol

Arizona Legislators meet with school leaders during Day at the Capitol on Tuesday, February, 24. From left to right, Sen. David Bradley (D-1), , Rep. Heather Carter (R-15), Rep. Doug Coleman (R-16) and Kate Brophy McGee (R-11).

“It is disheartening that the governor’s proposed budget includes five percent cuts to district schools while only 3.5 percent to charters. This blatantly illustrates favoritism toward charters and growing inequities,” Tighe said. “In Arizona, charters spend 21 percent of their M&O budgets on administrative costs while districts spend only 10 percent.”

In order to preserve student programs and teaching positions, “cuts have been made as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Baca, whose district serves 13,168 students.

“There is the belief that non-classroom dollars do not impact student learning when, in fact, many instructional and student support programs ensure that students will graduate from high school and succeed in college, career and life,” Baca said. “It is important for community members, parents and educators to let legislators know what these cuts will do because student success and safety are at risk.”

When schools scale back on security guards or share nurses, it affects student safety and health, while continuing to cut plant operations means upkeep and cleanliness of schools will deteriorate, Baca explained.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students SchoolLeadersAtDayAtCapitol“If we have to cut bus drivers, there will be the need to scale back on transportation for athletic events and co-curricular activities,” Baca said. “If musical instruments are in need of repair, there will not be money to repair them and fine arts programs will suffer.”

As Baca has gone from campus to campus to talk with staff about the impact these cuts will have, he said they have expressed frustration and worries.

“The frustration is that policymakers are choosing, once again, to balance the budget on the backs of public schools,” Baca said. “If we continue to cut our way out of declining revenues as the result of tax breaks and tax credits, students will suffer and all of Arizona will have a high price to pay down the road.”

Four years ago, Flagstaff Unified School District closed schools and “made some difficult decisions to downsize ourselves to be more fiscally lean, but we can’t get much leaner,” said Barbara Hickman, superintendent of the district which serves 9,730 students in Coconino County.

While Flagstaff Unified, Mingus Union and other districts throughout the state look at their options for reducing their budget, they have sent op-ed pieces to their local papers, posted letters on their websites and spoken to community groups about the impact of the proposed budget and current bills making their way through the legislature.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students PaulStantonDayAtCapitol

Paul Stanton, superintendent of Humboldt Unified School District, is interviewed during Day at the Capitol.

Also, Flagstaff Unified Governing Board members Paul Kulpinski and Sarah Ells have met one-on-one with Representatives Bob Thorpe and Brenda Barton and Senator Sylvia Tenney Allen to share their concerns, Hickman said.

“We also requested a specific meeting with the governor, although we have not had that meeting yet,” Hickman said.

While student transportation is considered a non-classroom expense, proposed cuts to non-classroom expenses and House Bill 2449 about student transportation that realigns districts by the percentage of students who ride the bus and not the miles ridden could result in a loss of between $700,000 and $1.2 million a year to Flagstaff Unified’s district reimbursement for transportation, Hickman said.

Flagstaff Unified buses drive between 8,000 and 10,000 miles a day picking up students and dropping them off, and some students ride the bus for more than two hours a day.

Those proposed changes could lead to Flagstaff Unified decreasing the number of bus routes and increasing the length of time students are on the bus, Hickman said.

AZ school leaders: How proposed cuts will affect students 2015DayAtTheCapitolWithLegislatorsInside2

Nearly 150 Arizona K-12 public school leaders discussed with legislators what their schools are doing well and what resources schools need to continue that during the Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Coalition for Quality Education’s Day at the Capitol. Photo courtesy Mike Barcia/Arizona School Boards Association

“This is a huge school district and very rurally located,” Hickman said. “We cannot change our transportation like that and pretend it will not impact classroom achievement, because it will.”

In addition, most special education costs come under non-classroom expenses.

Of Florence Unified’s 8,600 students, 11 percent are special education students including several autistic students, some medically fragile children (tube-fed and diaper changed) usually in wheelchairs, a number of emotionally disturbed students, and others with learning disabilities, said Amy Fuller, superintendent.

“Many of these students require special transportation, special health care, speech therapist, physical therapy, aids, reading specialist, math specialist, psychologist, and other services,” Fuller said.

Students from the six group homes in the district often require more services, Fuller said.

“We are the voice of our children.  We work with them every day.  We know their needs because our job is to serve them.  If we do not speak up who will?” Fuller said. “It is up to us, as parents and community members to stand up for our kids and our schools.”

Click here for a related story: Arizonans protest proposed education budget cuts

In any given year, one classroom may have more special education students than another and require two classroom aides, Hickman said.

The situation could be different the next year as the student population changes, Hickman said.

“To put a mandatory law in place that restricts or over-governs the amount of money that a locally-elected school district governing board can choose to place in its classrooms in ‘classroom, non-classroom costs’ is overreach to me,” Hickman said. “The very kind that our legislature has consistently complained about coming from the federal government.”

The proposed cuts will put districts in an incredibly difficult position with federal programs, such as Title I, Title II, Title III, Indian Aid, Impact Aid, and Free- and Reduced-Lunch – none of which count as classroom expenses, Hickman said.

“If I try to cut money out of those federal funds, that will put me in danger of not meeting the district’s contribution to maintenance of effort,” Hickman said. “Then I am at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal funds for this school district because of the state’s somewhat arbitrary designations between classroom and non-classroom money.”

Hickman said she is grateful that the people of Flagstaff and the outlying county passed two overrides and a bond in the last five years to support the school district.

“We do have an incredibly pro-education community and we do have a good relationship with them,” Hickman said.

Peoria Unified has launched a 30-day feasibility study on a possible four-day school week to help cut costs and try to preserve services to students.

“We will be faced with a very difficult decision as we will be eliminating programs and positions that we know students need to be successful,” Santarelli said.

Over the past five years, Peoria Unified has reduced more than $24 million from its budget including cuts from the district level, down to school libraries, gifted education and elementary counselors, Santarelli said.

“If this budget passes, we will be looking at further reductions that are defined as non-classroom expenses, but have a direct impact on the classroom,” Santarelli said.

If the governor’s proposed budget passes, Peoria Unified may have to consider replacing school nurses with health technicians or eliminating nurses from campuses without medically fragile students, reducing or eliminating instructional specialists, who support learners with special needs, cut custodians who keep classrooms, bathrooms and common areas sanitary and safe, reduce or eliminate district administration staff that handle payroll, curriculum writing, maintenance, accounts payable, technology and human resources, expand the walk zone for students using school buses which means more students will have to cross major roadways to get to school, reduce or eliminate extracurricular programs, such as athletics, and reduce or eliminate assistant principals, who are responsible for dealing with issues such as bullying and overall school safety.

Peoria Unified has also sent emails about the proposed cuts to parents, created a video posted on the district web page, provided an op-ed piece that has run in local media and launched social media campaigns using the hashtag #myschool on Twitter and Facebook.

“It has generated steam on Twitter and Facebook as parents and community members are using it to share the importance of services, defined as non-classroom expenses, that have had a positive impact on their child,” Santarelli said.

Paradise Valley Unified School District has posted information about their response to the proposed budget changes on their website, Dr. Jim Lee described the consequences of the budget cuts on the state and his district of 31,971 students in a video.

Video of Paradise Valley Unified Superintendent Dr. Jim Lee on budget consequences

“We’ve been talking to our legislators for several years about the cuts that have been made to education, and the challenges we’ve had in the school districts is to still provide a quality product in spite of the cuts that have put us at the bottom in terms of funding for public education across the country,” Lee said.

The district has made so many cuts over the years that there’s not much else left to cut, and “these additional cuts are going to be devastating,”Lee said.

“I think any communication parents have with legislators helps,” Lee said. “I truly believe that our policy makers, at times, just don’t understand the realities of the budget crisis that we have been in for several years.”

Districts that exceeded the state average of putting resources into the classroom – like Paradise Valley – are at a disadvantage with these new cuts, Lee said.

“We have to move 5 percent more into the classroom just like everyone else,” Lee said.

“It’s a bit naive that policy makers don’t believe that we’ve been making our best efforts to put every penny we can into the classroom,” Lee said. “Our governing boards across this state take that very seriously, along with our superintendents. Local governance is there for a reason, to make sure that money is spent in the best possible way in the best interest of our students.”

Education budget cuts have hit small rural districts especially hard.

“Over the last five years, McNeal Elementary School District has experienced a 38 percent decrease in state equalization, a 63 percent decrease in federal grants, and the district’s tax rate has been frozen since fiscal year 2012,” said Teresa Reyna , superintendent.

With student enrollment rising 32 percent from August 2014 to 50, the district anticipates starting the next school year with a minimum of 50 students, requiring the addition of a fourth classroom teacher or moving the Special Education teacher back into the classroom, Reyna said.

“Each teacher is currently teaching a multi-grade classroom spanning over three grades,” Reyna said. “The larger these classes become, the more difficult it becomes to meet the needs of our students, but this is one example of what staff has had to do to help the district face the decrease to district funding over the years.”

Reyna has let community know of the impact of the proposed cuts through parent group meetings and discussions with staff and the board.

“If I can keep these budget cuts from directly affecting my students and their families, I would rather not place the additional burden on their shoulders,” Reyna said. “We will shoulder the burden in-house.”

Despite budget cuts over the past five years, McNeal Elementary, has continued to provide school supplies for students, updated technology, resources and curriculum, and continues to take an individualized approach to students’ education regardless of the continued impact on our budget, Reyna said.

The governor’s proposed budget would lead to $1 million in expenditure reductions in Casa Grande Elementary School District, said Dr. Frank Davidson, superintendent of the district with 7,132 students in Pinal County.

“Having made nearly $6 million in reductions since 2009, there are few options available,” said Davidson, noting that no final decisions have been made yet about specific staffing plans.

The proposed cuts also affect teacher recruitment, Davidson said.

Right now, all Arizona school districts are currently in a desperate struggle to find qualified teachers for next year, and most new teachers come from out-of-state, Davidson said.

“It has become much more difficult to attract teachers from other states in recent years,” Davidson said. “That is partly due to the fact that Arizona’s teacher salaries are not competitive with other states.”

“Frankly, it is also partly due to the fact that many young teachers view Arizona’s political leadership as hostile to public education,” Davidson said.

Like many other districts, Casa Grande has encouraged parents and community members to contact legislators to share their concerns, Davidson said.

“All three legislators care about what voters have to say, and I believe that they have a sincere interest in doing what they believe is best for the communities they represent,” Davidson said. “They need to hear voices from the community.”