Rural advocates discussed their concerns Monday with Legislators about per-pupil funding, school improvement grants, Project Rocket, special education costs, building maintenance and other capital needs.
“Thank you for all the work that you’ve done on education,” said Roger Jacks, former superintendent of Kingman Unified School District. “We have a lot of concerns and we always raise those, but we’re really grateful for what the Legislature’s done in the past couple of years for education.”
“I love meeting with my home constituents,” said Rep. Leo Biasiucci, (R-LD 5). “What’s on your mind?”
“During the state of education address, Supt. (Kathy) Hoffman talked about the condition of our buildings, and more capital funding would help a lot with that,” said Monica Timberlake, Quartzite Elementary School District School Board President.
For example, Kingman Unified’s Palo Christi Elementary has been closed since 2014, because it’s unsafe for students, voters rejected a bond that would have among other things provided money to renovate the school to house the district’s preschool, daycare and teacher training center and the School Facilities Board “does not recognize it as anything they will fund at all,” said Beth Weisser, Kingman Unified School Board Vice President and a former teacher.
Jacks, Timberlake and Weisser were some of the more than 60 people from around the state who met with Legislators and each other to discuss education issues that directly affect their schools and students in rural and remote areas during Rural Advocacy Day.
Senate President Karen Fann also told attendees where education bills were in the legislative process, what legislators’ priorities for education are this session and answered their questions.
The event was held on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 before the House Education Committee meeting was hosted and organized by Arizona School Boards Association.
Video by Morgan Willis/ AZEdNews: Rural Advocacy Day
Project Rocket concerns
The group took turns talking about the challenges that their small, rural and remote schools have.
“We were an F school, and we got a school improvement grant and we were able to bring in an instructional coach to help our students, and we went in one year from an F to a C,” Timberlake said.
“Well done,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
But then when the district got out of school improvement, the school improvement grant money was taken away, “and we lost the position and we are now an F again,” Timberlake said.
“We put Band-Aids on things, but we’re not finding permanent solutions, and a small school adjustment would help us and a lot of the small schools with some more permanent solutions,” Timberlake said.
“Right, and also the new Project Rocket bill, which would help C, D or F schools is what we’re voting on,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“That’s great. But is that is going to be taken away as soon as we are no longer a C, D, or F school? If so, then we’re right back in there again,” Timberlake said.
Instead of making schools apply for Project Rocket funding, “that’s really money that should have been in the base (funding) anyway,” said Andrew Kauffman, superintendent of Bicentennial Union High School District in Salome, Ariz.
“We’re a small school, and I’m the superintendent, I’m the principal and I’m the IT guy,” Kauffman said, noting applying for a school improvement grant is difficult to do while making sure all federal paperwork is complete and on time.
“I know Project Rocket worked over in Wickenburg as a pilot, but Wickenburg’s got 600 kids in the school, and if you give them $150 per student, they can hire somebody to do that,” Kauffman said. “If you give us $150 a student, we’re not going to be able to hire somebody full time.”
Project Rocket bill awaits hearing in Appropriations
Funding special education service costs
Another concern is how special education funding doesn’t come close to meeting the costs of the services schools are required by law to provide for the students who need them, said Beth Weisser, Kingman Unified School Board Vice President and a former teacher.
“So we do have a bill that is going to fund special ed and gifted,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“It’s only $1 million,” Weisser said.
“For now,” Rep. Biasiucci said. “But that’s just for the pilot – just for the two or maybe three years.”
“Imagine what $21 million would do,” Weisser said.
“No, I agree with you,” Rep. Biasiucci said. “And that’s something that with the gifted bill, would give money to special ed and gifted and all these other programs. That really should be like $5 million.”
“It should be a lot more,” Weisser said.
“I know, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
Right now, it’s at $1 million per year for the first three years, “but there’s going to be a bigger need, so I know that number is going to go up,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
Rep. Biasiucci compared it to the kindergarten survey bill he passed last year for the schools doing full-day kindergarten to find out how they’re funding it and what they’re teaching, saying “you need the data to back up any new funding.”
It’s the same way with special education and gifted funding, “let’s get the data, let’s prove to everybody without any doubt that this is going to happen,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“I’m hopeful that that’s going to be bumped up to where it needs to be,” Rep. Biasiucci said. “Project Rocket – I think that’s a great program, but you have a valid point, that you jump out of the C, you still need that funding. What do you do? And that’s something to have a discussion about.”
In regards to Project Rocket, Weisser said many of the people who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch in their district don’t fill out the form.
“Is it because they didn’t want to or they didn’t know to?” Rep. Biasiucci asked.
“They didn’t want to. They were embarrassed. All kinds of different things. You know what our communities are like,” Weisser said. “Then we’re at 59 percent (free- and reduced-price lunch) say and we don’t meet that 60 percent threshold that you have to have, plus you have to be C, D or F. Where does that leave us?”
Another concern in small, rural school districts is that “when things are done per-pupil there’s a huge difference in what you can accomplish if you have 10,000 pupils at $15 to $20 a student versus what you can do if you have 100 students with $15 or $20 a student,” Timberlake said. “There’s so much inequity.”
“Sure,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
Proposals to change education funding
Rep. Biasiucci said Legislators also are talking about education funding in general.
Right now, schools get funding from a large number of buckets, “how can we condense that? One idea is – it would have to go to the ballot – just do three buckets, so 75 percent for public (schools), 20 percent for universities and 5 percent for community colleges and everything goes in there – Prop. 301 and everything – so let’s really put all the costs into this education funding,” said Rep. Biasiucci, noting that’s about 5 percent more than public schools are receiving now.
All these different separate buckets “is not giving a number of that we need to spend on education,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“That’s the only thing that sounds reasonable to me today,” said Karey Amon, a Quartzite Town Council Member, who said right now “nothing ever meets the need. Put it all in the bucket and say here you are, spend it as best you can.”
“Absolutely right, I mean you still need the accountability. That’s not going to go away,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“Well, of course you do, but let them decide,” Amon said.
“We all down here want to give more to public education, and that’s why we’re saying let’s raise that to 75 percent because we need that more than anything,” Rep. Biasiucci said.
“The money needs to be spent in K-12 to teach these kids about what life is about and what you need to do to succeed,” Amon said.