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Education Department to seek guidance on cuts affecting smaller schools

budget money dollar sign fight620The Department of Education will ask the attorney general this week to issue a formal opinion on cuts to funds that support smaller schools.

Budget analysts estimated the cuts to charter schools’ small-school weight at roughly $6.5 million for the fiscal-year 2016 spending plan. But Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas announced May 15 the cuts are closer to $15 million.

The impact grows to $24 million in fiscal-year 2017 and $32 million in 2018.

An attorney general opinion is not binding, but it is important because it is the formal legal advice of the state’s attorney.

Charter schools complained the cuts will hurt some of the very best schools and those considering expansion.

Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said the Department of Education chose to interpret statutes amending the formula to apply to the largest number of schools, students and teachers.

“The impact will be real and immediate,” Sigmund said. “Included in ADE’s interpretation are 112 of Arizona’s smallest charter schools, some of which stand to lose $1,000 per pupil, which was not the intent of lawmakers and the governor.”

The cuts were made because critics contend that some schools deliberately keep their enrollments low to capture additional money.

Department of Education Chief of Staff Michael Bradley said the larger estimate was the result of the complex funding formula for schools. Amendments made this year to one component affect other components. That includes certain charters with multiple sites and a fund that pays for teacher raises and classroom expenses.

“We’re stuck with what the language actually says,” he said.

Bradley said everyone knows the Legislature didn’t intend such drastic cuts, but the department is simply following legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office, internal counsel and the agency’s financial expert.

He said if the department manages the money illegally, then the state will lose federal reimbursements.

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