SUBSCRIBER EXCLUSIVE

Not all Arizona schools eligible for millions in funding

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PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers are pushing ahead with the first major revamp in four decades of how schools are funded despite the fact the package was apparently put together without input from traditional public schools.

And that is causing some of them heartburn as they try to figure out who would be the winners and losers in the plan to put anywhere from $171 million to $215 million more into schools overall. But because not everyone would be eligible, there would be losers.

What is clear is the measure was brought to lawmakers by charter school interests and taxpayer groups who have advocated for altering the formula to provide more funding for them. And what also is clear is every charter school in the state would get more money.

But Senate Bill 1269, introduced to the public for the first time on Monday in the House Appropriations Committee, could result in about half of the more than 200 school districts actually with less money because of changes in what the state will and will not fund.

For example, Scott Thompson, assistant superintendent at Mesa Unified School District, said a chart on changes to transportation funding claims his district would get an additional $4 million. But Thompson told lawmakers his analysis of the numbers suggests that figure is at least twice as much as what would develop.

But Sean Rickert, superintendent of the Pima Unified School District, said what’s in the measure will mean a lot of additional dollars for his district. And he said that’s important for a rural community like his with a low tax base and the inability to convince voters to increase their own property taxes.

It is all the unknowns — and the rush for approval late in the legislative session — that is causing frustration among some lawmakers.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she and others have been working on the plan for months.

That’s news to Joe Thomas who is president of the Arizona Education Association and who said he and others from the education community were not involved in those talks and had no input into the bill that got its first public airing Monday.

“We may end up in a better place,” Thomas said of the additional dollars. “But if it’s that good a bill it doesn’t need to be run through on a striker towards the end of the session with not enough people talking about it.”

Rep. Kelli Butler said there needs to be more public discussion and pointed out there were other school officials in attendance who were opposed to the bill but were not allowed to speak. That drew an angry reaction from Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the panel and decided that she would allow only three speakers from each side and limit total debate to no more than 30 minutes.

“You going to do this?” Cobb said. “I’m going to censor you today if you do not stop.”

Butler said it’s wrong for lawmakers to push ahead with a bill crafted largely by charter school supporters without input from the public schools that are attended by most Arizona students.

“I do not believe that this was a stakeholder process that was followed that this issue deserves,” she said, calling the idea of pushing ahead with a bill that she got to see only last Thursday “the most absurd thing I can ever imagine.”

And Butler said she was not impressed by the fact that Great Leaders Strong Schools, which lobbies for additional funds for charter schools, does not replace true input, especially on a measure she said will move funding both into charter schools and higher performing schools.

Udall was unapologetic for pushing ahead, saying the issue of school finance has been discussed for years, with no meaningful changes.

“If you wait until you have everybody’s buy-in before you propose a solution, nothing every happens,” she told Capitol Media Services.

The heart of SB 1269 would raise the base amount available to schools for each student they have, above and beyond inflation.

There also is the ability of schools to opt in to get additional aid beyond that. But in order to qualify, schools could not raise additional cash through bonds and override elections.

That’s designed to deal with what some contend is the unfair advantage that exists in some districts that have sufficient property wealth and voters willing to raise their own taxes.

Rickert told lawmakers the last override vote in his district failed when 93% of residents voted against it. And that goes to the fact that there just isn’t the value of property in rural areas.

“In order for me to get an override, I’d have to double my property tax,” he told lawmakers.

The flip side of that, Thomas said, is districts that want to opt in for the additional funding would first actually have to reduce their spending by eliminating any overrides. And that, he said, makes no sense.

“We should all feel comfortable about the ability to fund our schools and not put them in a situation where they have to lay off people to get to a new funding program,” Thomas said.

Udall, for her part, was unapologetic about revamping a system in which she said there are clear winners and losers.

Under the current system, she said, the smallest schools have the greatest per-pupil funding. Next, she said, are districts that have a sufficient property tax base for overrides who can tap local taxpayers for additional resources.

Below that, she said, are charter schools. And at the bottom are districts that can’t get voters to pass a bond or override.

Matthew Simon, lobbyist for Great Leaders Strong Schools, said there are disparities, even among public schools.

For example, he told lawmakers, a student in the Phoenix Elementary School District is “worth” about $6,000 more than a student in Toltec Elementary School District.

And students in the Sunnyside Unified School District, Simon said, get about $5,500 less than those in the Phoenix Union High School District.

But Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the trade-offs that this bill offers are less than clear.

For example, more than $47 million of the cash goes to something called “results-based funding,” money given to high-performing schools as measured by performance on standardized tests for reading and math.

Essigs said, though, those dollars are available solely for those programs. And he said it doesn’t replace the dollars available to schools in areas of low poverty where students need the extra help.

Also gone under the change would be the “teacher experience index,” where schools get extra money to help retain veteran educators. Thomas said that’s particularly critical in a time when many are leaving the field.

Udall, however, said there’s another side to all that.

“That means those same districts are going to have enough money to take the most experienced teachers again and again,” she said.

“And they take the most experienced teachers from surrounding districts because they have more money to pay them,” Udall continued. “And so it creates this self-perpetuating system where other districts never have access to those high-quality experienced teachers.”

While the measure was approved on a party-line vote, with only Republicans in support, several said they have questions they need answered before the bill goes to the full House.

“I need specific information on my districts,” said Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford.

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