When the Gilbert Unified School District announced last week that it would be eliminating 150 positions to close a budget shortfall, as an elected governing board member, I had two thoughts: “I’m glad I’m not first,” and “it didn’t have to be this way.”
Gilbert was the first district to announce position eliminations to balance its budget due to a decline in funding, but it almost certainly won’t be the last, as districts that did not receive a large infusion of federal funds grapple with their budgets due to the added expenses associated with serving students throughout the pandemic.
A year ago, at the outset, educational leaders knew that public schools would play a central role in the community response to the pandemic, both practically and politically. Practically, they have not only had to continue to deliver educational services, but also feed hungry families, help the economy by continuing to employ large numbers of Arizonans, avoid becoming epicenters for virus spread, and most recently, provide Covid vaccine sites for school staff and others.
Politically, schools have been a flashpoint from day one. In my district, parents accused the district of disregarding student safety by continuing in-person instruction when case numbers were fairly low. Later on, a different yet equally vocal group of parents accused the district of harming students by staying remote during the highest case numbers we had seen yet.
As the statewide organization representing Arizona’s public-school districts and their elected governing boards, the Arizona School Boards Association has kept its eye to the future. We, along with our partner organizations, understood that in order to be there for the community after the pandemic, we would need to change the way we do business during it. We knew that all the hard work the state had put into raising teacher salaries and education funding over the last five years could be undone in a year. We knew distance learning would impact enrollment, and we asked the governor and Legislature right away to consider freezing funding for one year at the 2020 level. They declined.
Instead, we were told our funding would be reduced by 5 percent due to distance learning and a grant program of federal funds would make up the difference, holding us to a 2 percent loss. That funding did not materialize. Instead, the more than $250 million that the state “saved” by funding schools at a reduced rate is contributing to the state’s healthy budget surplus.
In January, we told legislative leaders that, without additional temporary funds, the legacy of increasing education funding that so many of them are eager to claim was at risk.
Meanwhile, federal funds for education relief are targeted to the poorest districts. While on its face that makes sense, it leaves a gap for medium- to higher income districts as well as many smaller rural districts, most of which are represented by members of the legislative majority.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it still doesn’t. We still have time to keep additional districts from having the same experience as our colleagues in Gilbert did. The Legislature should use a portion of the state surplus to ensure that all districts receive the necessary support to avoid large reductions.
In the latter stages of this pandemic, the arguments have been reduced to in-person versus distance learning, with each side maintaining their way is the best way. As always, the truth is more complicated. Each school district in the state was left to chart its own path until recently, and no two districts did things exactly the same. A district’s response to the pandemic depended heavily on community sentiment, available staffing, additional resources and, frankly, community cooperation. As focused as the public and the Legislature have been on pointing fingers at who has done it better, Arizona’s school districts have been focused on getting it done.
This pandemic will end. And when it does, Arizona’s students will return to school. If we are to have any hope of minimizing the impact of this year on students, we can’t begin from behind. We need to make sure that our teachers are there to serve our students in person, with appropriate class sizes and proper certification.
Doing so will not only help students, but it will also help keep more Arizonans employed. Fortunately, doing what’s best for students is also usually best for the economy. Arizona’s public schools are not the enemy. They are the way to restore public trust and confidence, and the surest sign that Arizona is coming back. We can come back weaker, or we can come back stronger.
Ann O’Brien is president of Arizona School Boards Association.