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Teacher pay top priority if Prop. 123 is OK'd
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Teacher pay top priority if Prop. 123 is OK'd

Teacher pay is at the top of Tucson school leaders’ priority lists should voters approve Proposition 123 in a special election in May.

Pima County school districts stand to receive a total of nearly $26 million immediately after the proposition’s passage. Prop. 123 would settle a years-long lawsuit filed by school districts and education groups against the state for its failure to fund inflation adjustments as required by a previous voter-approved measure.

The first year Pima County total includes about $20 million out of $300 million that would be distributed statewide. It also includes about $5.6 million out of $50 million pledged annually for five years statewide. There’s another $75 million annually for five years after that.

In the first year, Southern Arizona’s largest school district, Tucson Unified, would take in about $9.6 million.

Given the comparatively low level of K-12 funding in Arizona, leaders of nine Tucson school districts say there is no shortage of ways the money could be used.

In a Star survey, all said they would use a portion – if not all – of the funds to improve teacher retention and recruitment. Other priorities include technology upgrades and building repairs.

Each district’s governing board would have to sign off on such plans.

“If voters approve it, we’ll put the money where it matters most, which is teacher salaries,” said TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. “That’s the shortage, that’s the need and they’re the folks working with the kids.”

While TUSD’s finance office is still crunching the numbers, Sanchez says teachers could see an increase of as much as $1,500, not including a $500 increase that is already in the works. The extra $1,500 would bump salaries up by about 3 to 4 percent depending on each teacher’s years of experience.

Other staff members, teachers’ aids and hourly employees would also be considered for raises depending on how far the money can be stretched.

Had the original voter-approved funding been paid to schools, Sanchez said TUSD would have received twice as much as it stands to gain now, but he supports the new proposition, saying it’s better than nothing.

For Marana, which would receive about $2.5 million in the first year, a key piece would go to enhancing professional development, according to Dan Contorno, that district’s chief financial officer. That would help with employee retention.

“We haven’t struggled as much as other districts have with the shortage, but we do see 100 new teachers every school year, and with that comes a fresh young adult out of college,” Contorno said. “Teaching is an art, and we try to help them be successful through mentoring and training.”

Vail’s Governing Board would certainly want to spend the majority of the $2.4 million it would receive in the first year on salaries for teachers and staff, said Calvin Baker, the district’s chief. But it’s important to remember that some of the increased state funding ends after 10 years.

“We cannot put into salaries the money that is not going to recur each year,” he said.

Vail is also considering retention bonuses, which would be calculated based on the number of years a teacher has stayed with the district.

Another Vail priority with the one-time funds is to replace old technology, Baker said. Teachers rely heavily on their laptops to plan and deliver their instruction, but many of them are “embarrassingly old.”

“In the world of technology, an 8-year-old computer is ancient history,” he said. “It truly is interfering with our teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.”

Like Vail, the Sahuarita and Flowing Wells districts would look into capital purchases, including technology, textbooks and building repairs, on top of adjusting teacher salaries.

Sahuarita would put a priority on needs and repairs that are directed to the health and safety of students, and beyond that to any critical instructional needs like textbooks and technology, said Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela.

Realistically, he said, the district likely would not get too far beyond the most critical safety and operational repairs and into the instructional pieces.

“Compared to the losses that have been sustained since 2008 when you factor in inflation variables, we calculate roughly that we’ve lost $10 million conservatively in this district,” Valenzuela said. “The return of a fraction of that is not the final outcome or solution, but we believe that it’s a step in the right direction to at least make first steps of progress on priorities that we believe are critical to continue moving the mission of the district forward.”

Flowing Wells wants to replace math textbooks and repair aging buildings, among other things, said Superintendent David Baker. Teachers’ workstations also need upgrading.

The $1 million or so Flowing Wells could receive would certainly make a difference, he said. But he realizes that the proposition would not address all of the needs going forward.

Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill said the settlement wasn’t designed to fix all of the state’s education woes.

“We should be having a statewide conversation about how to restore all of those funding cuts so that teachers have the supplies and the resources they need on a day to day basis for their students — that’s been virtually wiped out by the state,” he said. “We should be talking about early grade contact time — full day kindergarten, we’re one of only five or six states in the country that doesn’t fund full day kindergarten at the state level.”

Morgan Abraham, chairman of the Vote No on Prop. 123 committee and president of Pima County Working Young Democrats, said the source of the money is an important factor in his opposition. He pointed out that most of the money would come from the state land trust, which is already largely dedicated to K-12 schools.

“This isn’t really new money,” he said.

He also said districts should not settle for anything less than the full amount they should have received had the Legislature followed voters’ original mandate.

In the legal battle preceding Prop. 123, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper ordered that the state reset schools’ base level funding to what it would have been had the state appropriately adjusted for inflation.

If the state complied with her order, the base level per-pupil funding would increase from $3,426 to $3,666, according to a fiscal analysis by the Grand Canyon Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The settlement amount under Prop. 123 increases it to $3,600.

The analysis also shows that the amount owed to schools in back payment for failing to fund inflation in previous years is more than $1 billion, though the judge has not ruled on whether the state would be responsible for paying that. Prop. 123 would fund about half that amount.

Based on those calculations, if the proposition passes, Arizona schools will receive about 72 percent of what they would technically be entitled to.

“Schools should get 100 percent of what the court ordered, not 70 percent,” Abraham said.

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com. On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or alexis@tucson.com. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

Data reporter

Data reporter on the investigative team for the Arizona Daily Star

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