View of the budget from Osborn School District

Luige del Puerto//March 13, 2015

View of the budget from Osborn School District

Luige del Puerto//March 13, 2015

Students in an algebra class at Osborn Middle School in central Phoenix work on a factoring problem in small groups on March 11. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Students in an algebra class at Osborn Middle School in central Phoenix work on a factoring problem in small groups on March 11. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

For political insiders, crafting the state’s spending plan is a spectacle – a final meeting of the minds after a period of high drama, backroom wheeling and dealing, and rushing to put together the final pieces of a $9 billion jigsaw puzzle.

For some members of Arizona’s education community, however, it has been a gut-wrenching, emotion-draining roller coaster ride. The K-12 community was aghast to learn that the initial budget deal would have forced them to take more than $100 million dollars in cuts out of what’s called “non-classroom spending.”

That’s problematic, they argued, because that pot includes money for students and instructional support, and services like counseling. Also, “non-classroom” spending counts federal grants, which means districts that have been aggressively going after federal monies would have been unfairly penalized.

The final budget, however, eliminated that requirement and gave schools flexibility to manage the cuts, and for that, many are grateful.

“While I am saddened by the overall budget, I am deeply grateful that the 5 percent classroom mandate and affidavit have been removed in lieu of the flexibility language,” Osborn School District Superintendent Patricia Tate told the Arizona Capitol Times hours after lawmakers approved a $9.1 billion spending plan that cuts $113.5 million from the District Additional Assistance (DAA) funds.

The DAA combined two capital funds, one of which was used to buy buses, books and computers. A 2011 law allows DAA funds to become unrestricted, which means it can be used to fund operations.

All told, the K-12 budget for fiscal 2016 increased by $81 million compared to this year. The bulk of that spending growth is formula driven – meaning the state has to increase its allocation for K-12 schools because of more students and higher cost per pupil.

Lawmakers went without sleep for a night to approve a budget deal. But education advocates anticipate more sleepless nights, knowing they will have to run schools with even fewer resources. While the state budget provides flexibility, the size of the cuts remains largely the same.

What’s worse is the lack of certainty about the future. Tate, Osborn’s administrator, said this worries her the most – not knowing whether her schools could sustain the programs they have worked so hard to implement and excel at.

“It’s kind of like that thing in the back of your mind, the cloud that’s just there, and it’s been there now for seven years, and it’s really hard to have that,” Tate said, referring to the cuts during the recession. “It takes a lot of emotional energy to constantly be thinking, ‘Oh, we might get cut: What are going to do if (this or that happens)?’”

Because Osborn Middle School is nestled within walking distance from the Phoenix light rail, many of its students arrive by public transport. Almost 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the school is diverse – 64 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are Caucasian, 11 percent are African American, 10 percent are Native American and 2 percent are Asian. Roughly 3 percent of students are limited in English proficiency.

Many education advocates point to Osborn as a great example of a district that has delivered. Indeed, under the state’s accountability system, one of the district’s schools, Encanto, had jumped by 43 points on a 200-point scale and moved up two grades to earn an A.

Tate said the task ahead is for her district to craft a plan that balances its mission to still deliver quality education while trying to save existing jobs. The district’s budget committee will likely look at materials and supplies first.

The other challenge is that districts are using some of the funds from DAA for operation. Cutting DAA, therefore, translates to a smaller amount for schools’ operating budget, Tate said.

Osborn district, for example, transferred $273,000 from DAA to its operating budget for the current fiscal year. That money helps to maintain teacher salaries. Next year, that transfer shrinks to $167,000.

In any case, the conversation with principals and her administrative team will be difficult, Tate said.

“But when we’re done with that conversation, what we will commit to as we leave the room is to go out into our communities and our schools with that sense of optimism and recommitment and a can-do attitude,” she said. “We’re going to weather this through. We’ve done this before.”

For Tate, this year’s budget process affirmed one truth about Arizona’s democratic experiment: The public gets the leaders it deserves, and if voters want a different outcome, they better get engaged. The state’s policymakers, notably the governor, ran on a platform of balancing the budget and avoiding a tax increase, she noted.

“This (budget) is not a real surprise because the voters chose this Legislature. The voters chose this governor, and in that regard, he’s absolutely right. This is exactly how they campaigned, and their actions are true to how they campaigned,” Tate said. “If this is not the way you want education to go in your state, then find your voice in whatever way is most comfortable to you, and find your vote.”