EV districts make plans for budget as they await decision by Legislature - East Valley Tribune: Chandler

EV districts make plans for budget as they await decision by Legislature

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Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 8:00 am

As the Arizona Legislature continues to debate the budget, districts across the East Valley are using the information they have available to anticipate any changes they’ll experience for the 2014-15 school year.

As of Friday, the Arizona Legislature was in the process of figuring out the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which will have an effect on how school districts’ allot funds for the 2014-15 fiscal year. One of the main points of contention between the state House and state Senate is funding for school districts that have converted traditional campuses to charters in recent years; the House allotted $33 million for those schools in its version, while the Senate cut the total by half after initially eliminating funding for those schools all together. A new House proposal cut the funding down to $25 million, although the earliest the two sides can finalize a budget is Monday.

Higley Unified

That puts the funding for a district like Higley Unified, which converted Cooley and Sossaman middle schools to charters just before the start of the current school year, at risk. District Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty said the worst outcome for Higley is a complete cut in those funds, which would slash the budget by $2 million.

If that’s the case, Higley’s Maintenance and Operation budget — composed largely of teacher salaries – would have $3.5 million less for 2014-15 when compared to the 2013-14 $53.6 million figure. Removing any cuts in charter funding still leaves Higley with a $1.5 million budget deficit due to voters’ decision to not renew the district’s override, which Hegarty said has forced the district to evaluate its programs more thoroughly than in previous years.

“Even in really good years you eliminate things that don’t have as big an impact,” he said.

The process for Higley has entailed surveys with parents, teachers, administrators and additional staff members to figure out priorities, which Hegarty said is a difficult process. One area that could take a hit is teaching staff, as he said while the district has a “beats the socks off” the state average for retention, adapting to the cuts and any potential increases in utilities and other factors could lead to a reduction in teachers.

“We want to know who we’re keeping and who we need to replace,” he said.

Gilbert Public Schools

A shift in budgeting is also under way at Gilbert Public Schools, although Director of Finance Teddy Dumlao said the district is implementing a whole new system for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Gilbert will use a zero-based budgeting process, in which departments formulate how it would operate based on a budget that’s between 80 and 100 percent of what it currently has. Those departments figure out what they could do with each funding level and see what cuts to staff or in other areas would be at the lower levels. The final decision on what gets cut and where the cuts come from is determined by Gilbert’s governing board.

Dumlao said few if any districts in the state use a zero-based budget, but he said there is a notable advantage to the system as the district trims approximately $5.8 million – attributed in part to the non-renewal of the district’s override attempt in November 2013 – from its $195.2 million budget. The advantage, he said, is the ability to plan the budget without waiting for the final decision from the Legislature because the district already compensates for funding chops.

“You can literally wait until the last minute,” he said.

But the process hasn’t been entirely clean for Gilbert; the district has undergone a sizable upheaval in leadership. The district will have at least four superintendents over the course of one calendar year, and its four assistant superintendents have submitted their resignations to take effect during this school year or after June 30. That doesn’t include principals, program directors and others totaling more than 80 who will leave the district via resignation or retirement at the end of the school year.

Dumlao admitted forming a budget with such a decrease is a challenge, and he said the situation “is kind of like a ‘Twilight Zone’” episode. But he added the district has received strong contributions from the staff.

“The process is so transparent, and we’re getting a lot of good information,” he said.

Mesa Public Schools

While Higley will need to cut from its budget, Mesa Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Bobette Sylvester said the district anticipates an increase for the second year in a row, with this year’s increase estimated at $6 million from the district’s current $372 million Maintenance and Operation funding.

A large portion of the increase is tied to a $5.4 million gain in students success funding and comes in spite of a drop in student enrollment by 114 students for next year. Sylvester said the latter is more than balanced out by an increase in the number of special needs students.

“The net effect is $1 million more for us,” she said.

Sylvester said the increase in funds means the district can shift away from its employee salary step schedule for a new system. The salary schedule provides educators additional salary for meeting certain experience and training goals – the latter includes attaining advanced certification – but Sylvester said the downside is how much it depends on state funding.

To replace the schedule, the district would implement a plan allowing it to offer $65 for every additional education hour to a certain point, and the district would have the option of offering performance raises or across-the-board pay increases, among other options.

“It’s more flexible for our governing board,” she said.

Chandler Unified and Tempe Union

Neither Chandler Unified School District nor Tempe Union High School District offered specific details or estimates on their budgets, but Chandler spokesperson Terry Locke and Tempe Union spokesperson Linda Littell said their respective districts are implementing community and internal committees as part of their budgeting process.

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