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Potentially devastating school budget cuts

Many people may not be aware of an impending education funding crisis that threatens to cripple public schools across Arizona. There is a state process known as the aggregate spending limit, which is part of the state budget. The Arizona Constitution established the aggregate expenditure limit, which limits spending for school districts statewide to the 1980 spending level plus 10%, adjusted for inflation and student enrollment. 

Jim Rice

This spending limit is similar to spending limits throughout state government, counties, cities, and towns. However, a key difference is that rather than provide for individual school districts to address an increase to the limit like the other entities with spending limits, traditional public-school districts have their spending limit aggregated together and must rely on the Legislature to adjust the spending limit. 

Recently, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated that expenditures from traditional public-schools will exceed the spending limit by $1.24 billion. The limit will be exceeded due to the loss of 50,000 students during the 2020-2021 pandemic (although the majority returned to district schools this year); restoration of prior legislative budget cuts to district capital budgets, increases in teacher pay, and changes to Proposition 301, the sales tax for education. 

Unless the Legislature acts to raise the limit to account for these conditions, the impact on your local school district will be devastating. By April 1 of this school year, roughly 80% of the fourth quarter funding budgeted would be cut. Since much of the non-salary portion of the budget is already spent, schools would need to consider some or all of the following actions: reduce salaries by 75%, terminate three of every four employees, increase class sizes beyond any reasonable standard, eliminate extracurricular activities or simply end the school year in April. Neither small business owners nor CEOs of large corporations would be able to cut so much without severely impacting their business. Our public schools are economic engines that put over $5 billion back into the state economy. In most communities, the school district is the economic driver that sustains local businesses. 

It is our understanding that legislative leadership and the Executive Tower are working to bring resolution to this year’s budget crisis, and we applaud their efforts. However, solving the FY 2022 crisis in January is just the first step in solving this problem. We will encounter this again as the Legislature turns its attention to setting the FY 2023 state budget. Finding a permanent solution to the issue is critical to ensure communities continue to thrive. A long-term sustainable, fair and equitable funding solution is critical for our children, our families, and for the stability of Arizona’s economy and the economy of communities throughout the state. 

Further, once the Legislature fixes the FY 2022 problem in January, this issue needs to be solved permanently to provide a fair and equitable funding model for traditional public-school districts that reflect the realities of a 21st century economy and educational system. A solution must also include all public schools, including charter schools which are currently not affected by the spending limit. Reliance on a model built in 1980 is not realistic nor sustainable. 

Policymakers, business leaders and Arizona’s parents need to come together to assure the long-term solution to the aggregate spending limit is the priority in the remainder of the legislative session. The next step is critical to the sustainability and stability of Arizona’s economy. The Legislature should support a ballot referendum addressing the aggregate spending limit for traditional public schools for the November 2022 election. Our economy needs the stability, and our families deserve to know their school-aged children will be supported with strong education programs. The cost of leaving this to chance is just too great. There is no greater priority! 

John Pedicone is former superintendent of Flowing Wells Unified School District and Tucson Unified School District and serves on the Board of Directors for the Best Public Education in Arizona Foundation. 

James Rice is former superintendent of Alhambra Elementary School District and serves as an affiliate for the Best Public Education in Arizona Foundation. 

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