Lawmakers concerned about school funding inequity SanTan Sun News

Lawmakers concerned about school funding inequity

April 29th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Lawmakers concerned about school funding inequity
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SANTAN SUN NEWS STAFF

The funding nightmare confronting Kyrene and other school districts has not escaped the attention of some lawmakers.

Mesa Rep. Michelle Udall head of the House Education Committee earlier this month asked the state Department of Education to turn loose $85 million to help forestall anticipated teacher layoffs in some districts while in a Chandler Chamber of Commerce forum April 9, Legislative District 18 Rep. Mitzi Epstein said some lawmakers are working on a proposal that would address the very problem confronting Kyrene.

Chandler Chamber was to join Chandler Unified School District and an undetermined number of other districts in lobbying the governor and the Legislature for more funding.

At issue are the federal regulations governing the distribution of pandemic relief funds approved by Congress in December and the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden in March. Funding in the December measure favors school districts that have a large number of students from low-income households.

The American Rescue Plan will pour $2.6 billion into Arizona for K-12 help and while Epstein said the U.S. Treasury has not yet issued guidelines for how that money can be distributed, Epstein said it appears targeting the same kind of districts as the December bill

“That’s a good place to put that money, but it leaves our schools such as Chandler and Kyrene in a bit of a world of hurt wondering ‘what are we going to do?’” Epstein said. “And they are actually facing potential staff cuts. And the last thing we need is to have fewer teachers available to take care of our kids and possibly fewer counselors to take care of our kids at a time when our children need this emotional support more than ever.”

Epstein said Udall “has a great proposal to balance that out – that the state would fill in where the federal government is leaving a gap for our local Chandler schools. And that’s something that I hope we can figure out in the budget.”

That may depend on a different issue raised by Ahwatukee Sen. Sean Bowie during the same Chandler Chamber forum – a move among Republican lawmakers toward major tax cuts and possibly even a flat tax.

Noting that the state income tax funds 40 percent of state expenditures, Bowie said the flat tax would favor wealthy Arizonans at the expense of programs aimed at middle-class and low-income residents.

Bowie said proponents cited Arizona’s share of federal pandemic relief funds for cutting taxes even though that relief is a one-time funding.

Although he said such a measure would create a $10 million hit for the City of Chandler, Bowie did not address its impact on K-12 public education.

Meanwhile, Udall cited Gilbert’s recently announced plan to terminate 152 teachers’ contracts for the coming school year and told state Superintendent of Public Education Kathy Hoffman other districts also have announced impending teacher layoffs for fear that they won’t have the state aid to pay their salaries.

That’s because aid is directly linked to the number of students enrolled, and the most recent figures show that more than 55,000 children have disappeared from district schools this year – about 5 percent of total enrollment, a figure that translates out to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Udall said districts have to make decisions now whether to offer contracts for the coming school year.

“The problem is, if you fire those teachers and the kids do come back, you’ve suddenly got overcrowded classrooms,’’ she told Capitol Media Services.

Udall said it may be impossible for schools that were hardest hit by declines to rehire those same teachers: Given the teacher shortage statewide, they may by that point have found gainful employment elsewhere.

What that leaves, she said, is schools hiring long-term substitutes who are not certified as regular teachers.

In her letter to Hoffman, Udall she said the Education Department is “for some reason holding onto nearly $85 million of discretionary money’’ from its initial $1.5 billion allocation of federal COVID relief dollars.

And she questioned the agency’s need for $7 million to administer that $1.5 billion allotment –the maximum allowed – when there are other more pressing needs.

Udall said she expects at least part of the fund problem to be resolved when lawmakers adopt the state budget.

Some of that, she said, will include eliminating that differential between what schools get for teaching students in person versus those who are learning online. The state funds the latter at just 95 percent despite indications of additional costs for such programs.

In a response to Udall, Hoffman acknowledged the need “to provide schools with budget stability and avoid unnecessary layoffs.’’ She said money from discretionary funds already is being distributed, though Udall told Capitol Media Services that “there’s still a lot left.’’

Hoffman said some of the blame for what schools are now facing financially can be traced directly to Gov. Doug Ducey.

He promised last year that schools would have at least 98 percent of the state aid they were getting in the prior year, regardless of attendance.

Only thing is, Ducey provided just $370 million for that based on federal dollars he got. Hoffman said the actual cost of missing students was close to $620 million.

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