Arizona Senate committee approves inflation funding for schools - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Arizona Senate committee approves inflation funding for schools

Education leaders worry because bill changes other funding sources

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Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 10:03 pm | Updated: 7:20 pm, Fri May 24, 2013.

A Senate panel approved $82 million in inflation aid for public schools -- and then voted, in essence, never to give back hundreds of millions more that they've shorted schools for the last four years.

On paper, SB 1487 increases basic state aid by 1.8 percent. That means an extra nearly $59 on top of the current per student base of $3,267.

The move did not come voluntarily. In fact, it took a ruling of the state Court of Appeals in January that lawmakers were violating a 2000 voter-approved law which requires annual inflation adjustments.

But Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, pointed out that the legislation approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee also permanently repeals longtime state laws which require lawmakers to provide much more in other funds to schools.

Morrill conceded it's not like the schools have been getting that money all along. For example, he said, cash for "soft capital'' -- things like books and computers -- has been reduced by as much as 90 percent from what the formula requires since the state ran into financial troubles in 2009.

But in making those cuts, lawmakers left the formula in place. AEA lobbyist Jennifer Loredo said that essentially was a promise the money would come back once the state's finances improved.

This legislation, however, repeals the requirements for the extra dollars and instead creates a new fund for "additional district assistance.'' More to the point, it sets that fund at the lower level.

The net result, said Morrill, is the permanent loss of $239 million a year that state statute now says schools should be getting.

Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, called it the "new normal.'' And she said it will put a permanent end to schools coming to the Capitol and complaining about money they should be getting and are not, saying the money to which they say they are entitled "doesn't exist.''

And Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said things really aren't that bad. He pointed to the extra money the schools will be getting, saying that lawmakers are giving them the flexibility to use those dollars where they need them the most.

That logic angered Morrill.

"You don't get a thank you note from the city of Phoenix when you pay a traffic fine,'' he said.

"They were following a court order,'' Morrill continued. "But they're using that to hide this massive, permanent reduction.''

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, called the complaints by the AEA of a permanent cut in school funding a matter of "semantics.''

"The fact of the matter is, for the last five years, it's been at that,'' he said.

"So we're not really cutting it,'' Shooter said. "We're just maintaining a cut, such as it is.''

Shooter said he does not want taxpayers thinking lawmakers are doing something new to hurt education.

"We're not doing a whole lot to help, perhaps,'' he said. But Shooter said it's simply a recognition of the state's fiscal reality.

"At some point we've got to say the emperor doesn't have any clothes,'' he said.

Even the money lawmakers are giving is coming with strings of a sort.

Loredo told lawmakers that many districts were hoping to use at least part of that inflation funding to retain the teachers they already have.

She said limited state aid during the recession result in many districts having frozen salaries at current levels. Loredo said taking about half of that inflation money would result in a raise of a "whopping $400 a year'' for the average teacher.

But Loredo pointed out separate language in SB 1483 which says that $82 million is available for "increased operating costs.'' And that, the legislation says, include implementing the new Common Core requirements and the necessary testing that goes with them, an additional burden being put on schools without any specific extra funding.

Shooter said he was sympathetic, being married to a teacher. But he said there just isn't the money available for across-the-board teacher pay hikes.

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