As public schools wait to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in long-delayed inflation funding from the State of Arizona, Yuma Union High School District Superintendent Toni Badone said “sustaining the cuts is erosive.”
Yuma Union, four other Arizona school districts and the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association and Arizona Association of School Business Officials sued the state in 2010 to force the Legislature to comply with the inflation mandate, which was established by the passage by voters of Proposition 301 in 2000.
Without the funding in recent years, which amounts to more than $1 billion, Badone and other district leaders say significant cuts to programs and services were unavoidable. They include a reducing the number of assistant principals, and in some cases, teachers, student support services like counselors and specialists, nurses, afterschool programs, extracurricular activities, and out-of-town student athlete travel for sports events.
“There are so many things we simply don’t or can’t do now that we could do then,” said Badone.
Dr. Frank Davidson, superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District, said the funding shortfall has contributed to a teacher shortage. “The greatest impact of the Legislature’s decision to not provide the statutory base support level has been to reduce our ability to attract and retain instructional staff,” he said.
Many districts have been unable to provide salary increases for teachers or other staff, something Badone called “a morale buster.”
The Supreme Court ruled in the education groups’ favor last fall. On July 11, Superior Court Judge Kathleen Cooper, who was given the task by the higher court of determining how the funding would flow, ruled that the state was responsible both for raising the K-12 per pupil base level funding to reflect inflationary increases that should have been made and paying back public district and charter schools for what they should have received over the years that the Arizona Legislature did not fund inflation.
Last week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the state will appeal the ruling.
At stake is about $1.6 billion for public district and charter schools spread over the next five years, the result of the court-ordered reset to base level funding.
An evidentiary hearing to begin to settle the issue of the $1.3 billion in back pay of legally required inflationary will be held in October.
Arizona Education News talked with Badone, Davidson and two other superintendents, Dr. Debbi Burdick of Cave Creek Unified School District and Robert Klee of Yuma’s Crane Elementary School District, about how the lack of inflationary funding has affected students in their districts, and what the impact of restored funding may be. Yuma Union, Cave Creek, Casa Grande Elementary and Crane were all named plaintiffs in the inflationary funding case. Palominas Elementary in Hereford, Ariz., was also a named plaintiff.
Q: What have been some of the areas your district had to make cuts in due to the decreased funding over the past five years?
Cave Creek Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Debbi Burdick: First, we made every cut we could that did not directly affect the classroom. We cut 24 percent of our administrators and voted as an administrative team to add those duties to our district office workloads, working at home and on weekends to finish tasks and taking furlough days that next school year.
We did it because we love this district, and we were committed to staying away from direct classroom cuts as much as possible.
We also did not want to add responsibilities to our principals. We want them leading their schools, in classrooms, mentoring teachers and interacting with students and parents.
We closed a middle school. This heartbreaking and painful necessity caused hard feelings in our community that remain today. It was our first middle school — a close-knit, long-standing school community and a most difficult choice. To do this and save a million dollars for our maintenance and operations budget, we changed our elementary schools to K-6 and our remaining middle school is 7-8 grades only. Our hope is that in better economic and enrollment times, we will be able to reopen the closed school.
We cut all support to middle school and high school sports programs, fees paid by families now completely support sports and clubs. It is very expensive, but we tried to maintain as many academic programs during our regular school day as possible, even though we know the value of extracurriculars. We just had to make tough choices.
We cut administrative assistants for assistant principals, a high school assistant principal, counselors to one elementary counselor for five schools, a band teacher and now have one for five elementary schools, the elementary orchestra program, nurses to two registered nurses that cover seven schools and placed a nurse’s aide at each school, our gifted specialist instead training classroom teachers in gifted strategies, and governing board member travel to conferences.
We raised class sizes one student per class for three years in a row. Classroom kindergarten aides were eliminated unless needed for large class sizes.
Casa Grande Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Davidson:Arizona districts spend around 85 percent of their maintenance and operations budgets on staff compensation. Although the loss of M&O funding in recent years has forced districts to eliminate positions such as media center directors, counselors and teachers, the greatest impact of the Legislature’s decision to not provide the statutory base support level has been to reduce our ability to attract and retain instructional staff.
There is an insufficient supply of Arizona teaching candidates, so Arizona districts must employ teachers from states in the Midwest and Northeast with an oversupply of teachers. When Arizona districts compete for teachers with states that have more robust funding for education, candidates are more likely to choose those states with higher salaries.
With just a few weeks before school starts, Arizona districts are still seeking teachers and many will begin classes with vacancies in special education, science and math.
The capital budget has also been significantly affected in recent years. District needs to adopt new curriculum, replace seven buses, district vehicles, six- to 10-year-old technology and fund facilities repairs and renovations total around $10 million.
Yuma Union High School District Superintendent Toni Badone:There is not an area of our district that has been untouched by the decreased funding.
A $1.2 million cut mid-way through 2008-2009 was only one of the several large cuts that were never restored. Because of mid-year cuts beginning in January 2009, we had to cut personnel first, since personnel costs average 85 percent of our maintenance and operations budget.
We cut administrative positions first, including six of 11 directors and five assistant principals. We did away with whole departments. We restructured our classified staffing model. We tried to stay as far from the classroom as possible, but inevitably cut teaching positions as well. We looked under every rock for ways to save and preserve programs for students.
We stopped traveling out of town for athletics. We stopped paying for services at games, such as scorekeepers, security, timers and ticket takers. Every employee who works for us now has many more responsibilities than they did in 2008-2009, and we now have fewer employees.
We worked through a process of self-examination over 2 years that involved all employees as well as the board to keep us afloat. There are so many things we simply don’t or can’t do now that we could do then.
Crane Elementary School District Superintendent Robert Klee: Each of our schools was affected differently by the budget cuts over the last several years. Areas that have been affected the most include support staff, instructional assistants, counselors, interventionists, classroom teachers, assistant principals, afterschool programs, increased class size and reduced extracurricular activities including field trips.
Q: How have the cuts affected teachers’ morale, salaries/benefits and perception by the public?
Badone: There is no question that we have a hard time attracting teachers because of low pay. Our starting salary for a first year teacher was $30,000 in 2008 and remained the same until this fall when it became $30,300. Nurses and law enforcement routinely start at $50,000 or more in Arizona for the same amount of education.
The disregard for teachers has been demoralizing. The continued de-valuing of the education profession through lack of funding translates into our finding fewer teachers. Last year, we hired 50 new teachers and had openings for 23 teachers all year. We struggle to find teachers in science, mathematics, English and special education.
Our teachers often work an extra period, leaving little time for calling parents, visiting with counselors about students or serving on committees to support goals.
If the profession paid more and public perception valued teachers, it would be a profession to which our students would aspire. But the low pay means that current master teachers encourage their own children to go into other professions. That’s a morale buster.
Klee: Teacher morale has been significantly affected by cuts to the budget. Without these funds teacher salaries have been frozen, staff has been reduced and our remaining staff has had fewer professional development opportunities.
It has become increasingly difficult to recruit and retain talented teachers without these funds. Young adults are less likely to pursue education as a career because they do not see teaching as a viable long term profession.
Burdick: We finally raised our starting salary last year from $29,000 to $30,000, which is still not appropriate for the expertise, skill and work ethic our incoming teachers possess. We have kept staff health benefits constant, and had true raises only once since the recession — 2 percent last school year.
Teacher morale has been significantly affected. How could it not?
Educators are obviously never in it for the money, but they must make a decent wage in order to pay for basic needs. Forty four percent of our teachers work a second and some a third job on nights and weekends. That does not include those working in the summer, going to graduate school if they can afford it, or attending workshops to pick up new skills. Some have shared that they have had to sell their eggs, sperm and plasma.
Fifty four of our 301 certified staff left this summer after school ended. The majority tell us they can make $8,000 to $10,000 more per year at neighboring large districts whose communities supported maintenance and operations overrides.
The most disappointing thing for me as a lifelong educator is the diminishing public perception of what educators do.
Great teachers make it look easy. It is not easy. It is hard work where most of the prep time takes place outside the work day. Grading homework, essays, and projects; keeping up with technology and the latest techniques to engage students; and timely responses to parents’ questions, clarifications and concerns are done in addition to daily classroom duties.
Teachers used to be respected and appreciated. They still should be, now more than ever, with all the demands placed on them. Many of us remember teachers who made a significant and lasting difference in our lives. That still happens every day in classrooms across America.
Q: How will restored inflation funding affect student support services that have been reduced or cut – such as wraparound services, counselors, social workers, classroom aides, tutoring, behavioral/speech/occupational therapy, other specialists and gifted services?
Burdick: First of all, I am hopeful that it will affect these things you have listed, but I have gotten hopeful many times at what our public schools may receive, only to be disappointed when dollars end up being diverted/restricted or usage being interpreted differently – and we end up seeing little or no impact to our programs.
We continue to need the services of social workers and more counselors. With school shootings, bullying and high suicide rates among teens, we need more early identification and interventions to stop the violence.
We also need to increase the arts areas where students can express themselves and hone talents.
More dollars for teachers would have a direct correlation to decrease class sizes and provide more individual attention for all students whether they are special needs, typical or gifted.
Klee: When these funds become available, our first priority will be to implement the full salary and benefits package as recommended in a 2013-14 study and reinstate programs and services that have either been eliminated or dramatically reduced because of funding cuts.
(The interviews were edited for length and clarity.)