We want to believe our Arizona Legislature is better than the ugly things being said.
We want to believe local lawmakers when they tell us that despite the loud and never-ending protests from teachers and education advocates, the state has allocated plenty of money to run our schools. In fact, the budget for this year shows a record allotment to education, as it did last year, and the year before that, etc., ect., ect.
We want to believe Gov. Ducey when he mocks national rankings published by the National Education Association that show Arizona near the bottom in school funding, near the bottom in academic performance and near the top in student-teacher ratio. Nonsense, says the Governor, Arizona has some of the best private and charter schools in the nation.
The unfortunate reality for the Sierra Vista Unified School district is ugly. Unless the Legislature approves an exemption to the constitutionally-imposed spending limit, the district will have to slash $5 million — that’s the number five followed by six zeros — from its already razor-thin budget.
We don’t have much confidence in the Legislature.
The Republican majority has played politics with education in recent sessions, arguing about mask mandates, warning constituents about Critical Race Theory, adopting laws on when kids “learn” about sex and other heavy-handed initiatives.
Many in the majority are also bitter about Proposition 208, which is the citizen initiative that Arizona voters approved in 2020 to collect a 3.5 percent surcharge from high-income earners. Proceeds from the special tax are designated for teacher and staff salaries, hiring more paraprofessionals, and other education-related spending. The Republican majority adopted a budget specifically aimed at mitigating the impact of the surcharge, reducing the income tax, and changing the state’s tax structure from four categories to two categories, with the lowest collection from the highest income earners.
Now education advocates and school districts are calling on the Legislature to raise the expenditure limit established in the Arizona Constitution. The provision was adopted in 1980 and restricts the amount of money that a school district — and other public entities — can spend according to a formula that considers Average Daily Membership (ADM) from the previous year.
There’s the fly in this ointment.
Fewer kids came to classrooms last year primarily due to the pandemic. Remote learning became a “thing,” and parents kept their children at home to prevent them from getting sick. As a result, Average Daily Membership — the number of students attending school — dropped precipitously.
Sierra Vista schools Chief Financial Officer Ken McGovern is estimating the local district will have to find a way to knock $5 million from its budget. Statewide, Arizona public schools will have to find more than $1.1 billion in budgeted spending to comply with the expenditure limit.
Unless the Legislature does the right thing and recognizes that 2020 was an anomaly for Average Daily Membership, Arizona schools are going to be as bad as what pundits have said.
For Sierra Vista and for schools across the state, it’s imperative that our lawmakers make an exception and adjust the expenditure limit when they return to session in January.