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School officials: Major cuts coming if Prop 204 fails

Kathy Knecht, a member of the Peoria Unified School District board, describes cuts her district endured during the economic downturn and what could happen if Proposition 204, the one-cent initiative, fails this November. (Photo by Luige del Puerto/Arizona Capitol Times.)

Supporters of the initiative to make permanent a temporary one-cent sales tax increase claimed today that its failure at the ballot in November would have dire repercussions, including the closure of schools, teacher layoffs and increases in class sizes.

They also pushed back against opponents’ assertion that revenues from the tax won’t reach the classroom.

The officials said school districts have done all they could to spare classrooms from the impact of budget cuts that were approved by the Legislature over the last few years.

“Additional substantive cuts will force us to reduce a great number of staff, close student programs and significantly increase class sizes to never-before-seen numbers to offset budget loss,” said Michael Hughes, a member of the Mesa Public Schools board and president of the Arizona School Board Association.

Hughes said the exact cuts in his school district have yet to be determined, but the failure of Proposition 204, the sales tax initiative, could be potentially “devastating to our entire school system.”

He added that the charge by opponents that the proposal gives school districts a blank check without any accountability is offensive.

Other school board members echoed his assertion, predicting that schools might also have to eliminate other special programs like art, music and physical education classes.

“We cut administration. We’ve cut it as far as we can go,” said Dave Schaefer, a member of the Cave Creek Unified School Board. “If the money goes away, it’s going to go away from the classroom.”

The opposition campaign fired back, saying the allegation is tantamount to holding students hostage in exchange for a “$1 billion ransom.”

“The proponents of Prop 204 have stooped to a new low today,” said Arizona Treasurer Doug Ducey, who is leading the opposition camp. “In an act of desperation, they are now threatening Arizona voters that if Prop. 204 is not passed, they will close schools and fire teachers.”

The fears expressed by supporters is partly based on the assumption that lawmakers would again cut the education funding once the current one-cent tax increase expires next year and the state faces another budget deficit.

The current three-year tax increase, which voters approved in 2010, produces roughly $1 billion annually.

The tax’s expiration will leave a revenue hole, but it won’t be felt right away. The state has set aside $450 million to offset future deficits.

Instead, budget analysts predicted a $67 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2016.

But under a more pessimistic scenario, the shortfall, which balloons to $411 million, will take place sooner — in fiscal year 2015.

However, a section in Prop. 204 prohibits lawmakers from cutting funding for public schools to less than what was being spent as of January 2012.

Another section also bars lawmakers from cutting the state subsidy to universities below this year’s funding.

And if approved in November, the proposal and its requirements would be voter-protected, which means they can only be amended if a supermajority — three quarters — of the Legislature agrees, and only if the change furthers the initiative’s intent.

The approach ensures that the budget for schools will be protected — no matter what the overall fiscal situation is.

During a press conference on the Capitol lawn, the school officials said districts adopted conservative budgets and used their “rainy day” accounts to manage the cuts in state subsidy during the economic downturn.

“We have kept the cuts as far away from the classroom as we can, but we’re not going to be able to continue that without some additional funding,” said Matt Jewett, a member of the Creighton School District board.

But not all board members support the one-cent tax initiative.

Staci Burk, a member of the Gilbert Public Schools board, said the initiative is a bad policy because it is a permanent tax.

And she’s not the only board member who is against it, she said.

“So, I’ve been disturbed by the ads out saying ‘(school) board members support Prop. 204,’” she told the Arizona Capitol Times.

 

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