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K-12 schools bracing for cuts

The cuts public schools will face next year are smaller than Senate Republicans initially proposed, but probably aren’t small enough to prevent teacher layoffs and school closings, according to some school officials.

The budget deal that the House, Senate and Governor’s Office hammered out includes a $183 million cut to K-12 schools, with $35 million of that offset by federal funds. Many of the cuts will come from funding pools that districts use for teacher salaries.

School districts will decide on an individual basis how to deal with the cuts, and some are better suited to absorb the fiscal blow. But the districts that suffer the biggest hits will likely be those that are losing students, along with the per-pupil state funding they bring.

Gerrick Monroe, assistant superintendant for business and support services at Mesa Public Schools, said his district lost 2,200 students last school year, and expects to lose 2,800 more in 2012. Between the lost funding from its shrinking student body and the $13 million or so in cuts it’s taking from the budget, the district’s governing board is preparing data on how many teachers it will have to lay off.

“We’re finalizing that by next week,” Monroe said. “But we will be reducing the number of teachers we have.”

Most of the cuts are directed toward soft capital, which is money used to pay for supplies, buses and other equipment. Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said soft capital funding has dropped from $225 per student three years ago to just $25 today.

With their soft capital cut for the third year in a row, Essigs said school districts will either go without needed equipment, or scrimp in other areas if a need can’t be ignored.

“It puts an additional strain in their operating budget,” he said.

For the past few years, some districts have been able to minimize layoffs by using soft capital money to pay for salaries and operations. Capital Outlay Revenue Limit money, a major portion of school funding in Arizona, is used for both, Essigs said, with two-thirds going toward operating budgets.

But that funding and other soft capital money has been stretched to the limit in many districts, he added.

“I think very few districts will be able to avoid … reductions,” Essigs said of pending layoffs.

The Arizona Education Association warned that class sizes, which are already in the low 30s in many schools, will likely jump due to layoffs. And the budget cuts may hike class sizes in other ways as well.

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