The state Department of Education is warning that schools may not get their $5 billion in federal and state aid next school year unless the governor and legislature come up with more cash to run the computers that figure out who gets what.
Stefan Swiat, press aide to Diane Douglas, said the agency got a one-time $7.3 million this fiscal year for information technology. He said this year’s request made to the governor through his Department of Administration was for $17.6 million.
And what did Gov. Doug Ducey put in his budget request to the Legislature?
“Nothing,’’ Swiat said. “Zero dollars. Big fat bagel.’’
He said this isn’t a question of asking for new equipment. Swiat said the IT budget includes not only routine maintenance costs but, potentially more significant, the salaries of the people who operate the computers that figure out how much each school is due.
“If we don’t have a system, schools don’t get paid,’’ he said.
Dawn Wallace, the governor’s chief education adviser, said this was not a purposeful slight.
She acknowledged that Ducey’s proposal zeroed out the IT line in the agency’s budget request. But Wallace said it’s not because the governor believes the Department of Education does not need at least some money.
“There’s just a lot in their request,’’ she said.
“By their very nature, IT projects are very jargony and technical and they always require further discussion and review through the budget development process,’’ Wallace continued. “We needed to understand what was priority, what was critical.’’
And Wallace said she has been talking with Department of Education officials as recently as Friday and is sure that something will be worked out to ensure there will be no interruption of payments to schools.
Douglas, in a separate letter to school administrators around the state, said answers are needed — and soon.
“Our IT staff will not be reassured about their employment, so we may begin to lose them permanently to other employers, which will cause the performance of the applications they maintain to decline,’’ she wrote.
Wallace said that the decision to leave the funding out of the governor’s budget request was not political — and not related to the fact that Ducey and Douglas, while both advocating for more education dollars, have not seen eye-to-eye on how much is needed.
She pointed out that Douglas, in her prepared statement about the lack of IT funding, said she appreciates that the governor has made education a top priority in his budget. Douglas also said in that statement that many of Ducey’s ideas are similar to the proposals she made last November.
But in the same statement Douglas also said none of that means anything if there is no computer system.
“Unfortunately, without any funding in next year’s budget proposal to support the data system that allow us to collect enrollment information from schools and calculate their allocations, we will soon be unable to process the payments that support Arizona schools, teachers and students,’’ the superintendent said.
While both are Republicans, Douglas has taken a far more aggressive approach than Ducey to the issue of what she said is a severe lack of funding for public schools.
That has primarily shown up in her request for an additional immediate $140 million for teacher salaries to provide a 5 percent pay hike. Douglas said that’s necessary to deal with the fact that 20 percent of teachers quit in the first year and another 20 percent are gone by the end of the second.
By contrast, while Ducey has acknowledged a teacher shortage, his budget has just $13.6 million for what would be a 0.4 percent pay hike this year, though he proposes to have teacher salaries increase by 2 percent by 2020.
Douglas also has been outspoken in her call for the state to once again provide full funding for school construction and maintenance, a figure she puts at $280 million. Ducey’s budget has just $17 million.
“The numbers are different,’’ Wallace said. “But that doesn’t mean that eventually we don’t want to get
to funding more in education.’’
Anyway, she said, if Ducey were seeking to undermine Douglas or her agency he would not have put $1 million into his budget request to fund 10 employees who otherwise would have had to be let go.
“That issue was much more clear-cut because it wasn’t bogged down with technical jargon and technical complexities,’’ Wallace said. “So we have been a partner to her in this.’’
Swiat said he is not saying the zeroed-out funding request was done on purpose.
“We’re not going to point the finger,’’ he said. If nothing else, he said, this was “a massive oversight.’’
Swiat acknowledged that the IT request was in some ways more complex than in the past.
He said it included not just $10.1 million “to keep everything running,’’ including the system of sending out state and federal aid to schools but also another $7.5 million to finish a new student data system. But Swiat said all of it is justified.