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Don’t shortchange Arizona’s students

Education is one of the few issues that impact every facet of life. It ensures that children become productive members of society. It ensures a work force that creates a prosperous economy. It ensures that the children of today provide these same opportunities — and more — to their children in the future. With the integral role education plays in Arizona and the world’s future also comes the responsibility any opportunity provides.
The more than 250 governing bodies that make up the Arizona School Boards Association represent more than 1,200 governing board members and 1.12 million public school children in this state. They take their responsibility seriously. Each year, ASBA membership comes together at our delegate assembly to engage in thoughtful dialogue on how best to fulfill our association’s commitment to Arizona’s public school children. At this meeting, our members reaffirm what the association stands for and determine what should be advocated for in the year ahead at the Legislature and other regulatory agencies. Once back in their communities, ASBA member boards put a discussion of these advocacy items on their board agendas. With local input, they hone the items down to a list of their top 10 priorities as a board. With input from all our member boards, ASBA then crafts a list of the association’s top 10 priorities for the year.
Once again, the clear top priority for public schools in 2008 is to advocate for legislation that provides school districts with the tools and resources needed to adequately support the curriculum and instructional needs of our public school children. To that end, this week’s passage of the constitutional aggregate expenditure limit exemption is a great start to the Legislature’s commitment to funding education. While this is an enormous task, all of the detailed efforts described below directly support this priority.
ASBA believes that, first and foremost, the budget shortfalls for fiscal years 2008 and 2009 must be addressed without undercutting the advances the state has made in our public schools. ASBA is committed to doing just that by advocating that new school construction be financed, rather than paid for with cash by using state general fund dollars. Not only is this financially prudent, as it would provide more than $800 million toward reducing the fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2009 budget shortfalls, it is also educationally sound to ensure that children are timely provided the facilities necessary for a quality education. It is interesting that current talk is centered around a moratorium on new school construction, as it is not only illegal, but fiscally imprudent; not only would this borrow into the future for facilities that are needed now, but it would increase construction costs as costs will likely increase as the economy recovers.
ASBA also believes that we must do all we can to — at the very least — maintain the current level of funding for education. In the past few years, we have seen all-day kindergarten fully funded and $146 million invested in non-administrative salaries and benefits. In the very near future, however, schools will face an untenable situation. The funding mechanism to pay for utility costs will expire at the end of 2009; the costs will, of course, remain. The lights must be kept on, the water flowing, the heating system working, and the Internet connected to provide a basic environment for learning to occur. Many school districts have already implemented energy-efficiency measures to reduce costs, such as changing light bulbs to more efficient CFLs. In fact, the Vail School District has just won an award for being the “greenest school in the nation” by utilizing such innovative conservation measures as solar panels, water harvesting and portable sink water heaters. Fully funding school utility costs (a $90 million issue) is a priority for ASBA. We appreciate Rep. Michele Reagan and Sen. Barbara Leff’s efforts to do just that. Schools should not have to choose between paying the utility bill and paying teachers or funding student programs. In fact, utilizing the entire state equalization tax rate would not only allow school district utilities to be funded, but would allow the state to invest in a significant statewide professional development and performance pay system — another priority identified by school boards across the state.   
Beyond the budget, issues related to local control and good governance (accountability) will be central to the efforts of ASBA in the year ahead. Two years ago, legislation was enacted to address one school district that had over-expended its budget by 5 percent. Since that time, there have been three additional districts that are in the same situation. All four of these districts are in receivership. While these represent fewer than 2 percent of the total number of school districts in Arizona, ASBA agrees that there should not be any district in this situation. We committed last year to come back to the table and assist in legislation that would provide training and support to any district experiencing financial difficulties as soon as problems were identified and would require receivership only in the most extreme cases. Rep. John Nelson’s efforts to bring interested parties to the table to negotiate an agreement have been much appreciated, resulting in a 53-0 vote in the House. We now look to take that momentum to the Senate.
In lockstep with this, ASBA is advocating requiring every prospective school board member to take six hours of training in the areas of governance, financial oversight, and/or open meeting law. No other elected official is required to take training courses; however, ASBA believes that with better-educated board members we will be able to serve our children and communities even better. Unfortunately, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne chose to thwart ASBA’s bill (S1358 sponsored by Sen. Tom O’Halleran) by asking that it be held in the Senate K-12 Education Committee. Not easily dissuaded, Rep. Andy Tobin took the lead in amending the superintendent’s bill, H2286, to ensure that the State Board of Education creates a list of qualified professional development trainers. 
Further, because we are in an extremely tight budget year, the urge to pass mandates without the resources will be high. ASBA will fight to ensure this doesn’t happen.
ASBA also believes the courts will play an integral role in 2008 when it comes to shaping the educational futures of our children. As March 4 quickly approaches, the deadline for the Legislature to fund English Language Learner programs places increased pressure on reconciling the budget. Further exacerbating the budget shortfall is the fact that if the Legislature does not take action by March 4, the court may impose financial sanctions. Due to the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, this looks to be a likely scenario. After more than 15 years of litigation, it is past time that the state took responsibility to ensure every child has the resources necessary to succeed.
The courts are also grappling with the constitutionality of vouchers and corporate income tax credits to private schools. ASBA, along with other education associations, have joined together to file these lawsuits, as we ardently believe that public funds supporting private, often religious schools, are not only unconstitutional, but hurtful to the public school system. If the court rules on either of these issues during session, it will have a significant impact on K-12 education.
It is unlikely that K-12 education will see a large quantity of legislation passed in the 2008 session. That will make the budget decisions that are made and the bills that are heard even more critical. The Arizona School Boards Association is committed to working with the Legislature and the governor to ensure that we make the decisions needed to propel our children’s educational
future forward and not take any steps back.
Janice Palmer is the director of governmental relations for the Arizona School Boards Association.

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