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Arizona public schools wait for budget answers

Andrew Smith knows he has to pay the math teachers. But Smith, superintendent of the Antelope Union High School District in Yuma County, is torn over whether he will be able to also fund field trips, after-school tutoring, roof repairs, school buses and support staff.

“I am hoping the state gives us numbers soon,” he said.

Across the state, education leaders in Arizona are trying to plan for the new school year with little information on how much state or federal funding they will receive. Education funding represents Arizona’s largest expense, but it’s unclear whether public schools will get more or less dollars when the new fiscal year begins in July. School leaders said they are already working with limited dollars and aren’t sure how they would cut further after years of budget cuts and policy changes that dictate how state dollars can be spent.

Education leaders are also waiting for lawmakers to reach a decision on performance funding, school standards and other proposed policy changes. At the same time, federal budget cuts could translate into a $17.7 million loss for Arizona public schools.

“It’s scary, especially for parents, because you don’t know if class sizes are going to go up, you don’t know if teachers are going to be fired,” said Rochelle Wells, president of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association and the mother of three high school students in Tempe.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget unveiled earlier this year called for $41.5 million to implement new school standards designed to produce students ready for the workplace or college. It also set aside $36.2 million to pay for a plan to link school funding to performance. Both of those proposed policy overhauls are still being debated by the Legislature.

But the biggest question driving the budget logjam is whether conservative Republican lawmakers will get on board with Brewer’s plan to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s federal health overhaul. Brewer has said she won’t sign any bills until significant progress is made on the budget, while Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin have refused to pass the Medicaid expansion.

The stalled negotiations have left teachers, school administrators and parents anxiously waiting for answers.

“We have to let these people know whether they are going to have a job next year or not,” said Frank Reed, superintendent of the Somerton School District, which includes 176 teachers and 3,000 students in five schools in southern Arizona. “It really makes it difficult to operate.”

Smith, who oversees 20 teachers and 295 students in Yuma County, said he has left teaching and support staff positions vacant as employees have retired or quit. He wondered whether he could replace a hot water heater or if students would be able to travel to education competitions next year.

State education leaders are prepared to draft preliminary budgets later this week to help local administrators create contingency plans, but they caution that they are also waiting for answers.

“At this point in time, the normal response is, ‘we don’t know what to tell you,'” said Lyle Friesen, deputy associate superintendent for the state Department of Education, of his advice to local school leaders.

With the economy sinking, state lawmakers passed a $123 million cut to education funding in 2009. A year later, they cut $144 million. In 2011, it was $288 million. The next year, it was a whopping $328 million. In 2013, the Legislature reduced education funding by roughly $280 million. In all, schools lost more than $1 billion in five years.

“We haven’t been buying textbooks,” said Tim Ham, superintendent of the Madison Elementary School District, which includes 400 teachers and 6,000 students in Phoenix. “Morale, and I think not just for here, but other districts, has been getting pretty low.”

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