Senate panel OKs $82M for schools, makes big cuts

2013-05-16T00:00:00Z Senate panel OKs $82M for schools, makes big cutsHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX - A Senate panel approved $82 million in court-ordered inflation aid for public schools, while at the same time eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in future school funding.

On paper, SB 1487 increases basic state aid by 1.8 percent - an extra $59 per student on top of the current base of $3,267.

But the budget measure also repeals a number laws requiring the state to provide other other funds to schools - cuts totaling about $239 million a year.

State law notwithstanding, the Legislature has not fully funded those "soft capital" expenses for things like books and computers for five years because of the ongoing budget crunch. But there was always the expectation that the funding would be restored once the budget crisis passed.

Barring some change in budget negotiations, however, Tuesday's Senate Appropriations Committee vote kills any chance the funding will return. If the funding were restored, it would mean an extra $13.3 million for the Tucson Unified School District. For the Vail district, it would be $2.5 million.

Even restoring the inflation funding was not voluntarily on the part of the Legislature. It took a ruling of the state Court of Appeals in January that lawmakers were violating a 2000 voter-approved law that requires annual inflation adjustments.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers union, said funding for "soft capital" expenses has been reduced by as much as 90 percent below what the law requires since the state ran into financial troubles in 2009.

But even though lawmakers took away the money, the funding formula remained intact in the law.

AEA lobbyist Jennifer Loredo said retaining the formula over the years essentially was a promise the money would come back once the state's finances improved.

This legislation, however, creates a new fund for "additional district assistance," which freezes the fund at the current lower level, which is $239 million below what would be required under the previous formula.

Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, called it the "new normal." And she said it will put a permanent end to schools coming to the Capitol and complaining about money they should be getting and are not. Ward said the money to which they say they are entitled "doesn't exist."

And Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said things really aren't that bad. He pointed to the extra money the schools will be getting, saying that lawmakers are giving them the flexibility to use those funds where they are needed the most.

That logic angered Morrill.

"You don't get a thank-you note from the city of Phoenix when you pay a traffic fine," Morrill said. "They were following a court order. But they're using that to hide this massive, permanent reduction."

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, called the complaints by the AEA a matter of "semantics."

"The fact of the matter is, for the last five years, it's been at that," he said.

"So we're not really cutting it," Shooter said. "We're just maintaining a cut, such as it is."

Shooter said he does not want taxpayers thinking lawmakers are doing something new to hurt education.

"We're not doing a whole lot to help, perhaps," he said. But Shooter said it's simply a recognition of the state's fiscal reality.

"At some point, we've got to say the emperor doesn't have any clothes," he said.

Even the money lawmakers are giving is coming with strings of a sort.

Loredo told lawmakers that many districts were hoping to use at least part of that inflation funding to retain the teachers they already have.

She said limited state aid during the recession resulted in many districts having frozen salaries at current levels. Loredo said taking about half of that inflation money would result in a raise of a "whopping $400 a year" for the average teacher.

But Loredo pointed out separate language in SB 1483 says the $82 million is available for "increased operating costs." The legislation says that includes implementing the new Common Core requirements and the necessary testing that goes with them, which is an additional burden being put on schools without any specific extra funding.

Shooter said he was sympathetic, being married to a teacher. But he said there just isn't the money available for across-the-board teacher pay raises.

On StarNet: Find more education news at azstarnet.com/education

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