A bill introduced by the state Senate would have cost school districts across Arizona, including the East Valley, a sizable chunk of funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
Senate Bill 1494 would have removed school districts’ ability to convert campuses into charter schools and force districts that have converted any of their schools into charters, to turn them back into traditional schools. The legislation was added in by Senate President Andy Biggs, who represents Gilbert, just before the senate approved a $9.2 billion budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. It proved to be a point of contention in the Arizona House, which held off on approving its budget for several days due in part to SB 1494 and eventually passed a bill delaying major blocks in funding for one year. The House legislation created a $33 million pool for those districts to use for 2014-2015.
Biggs has said in previous interviews the purpose of the legislation was to close a loophole in the education funding, and the Associated Press reported ending the practice would chop the state’s budget by $150 million over the course of three years.
Questions submitted to Biggs for additional comment on SB 1494 were not returned as of press time.
Chandler Assistant Superintendent of Business Lana Berry said districts’ main motivation for converting some of its campuses — state law requires districts maintain at least one public school for every grade level — to charters is financial. Charter schools receive more than $1,000 more per student in state funding than public schools, which she said can offset budget problems for districts that fail to pass an override.
“For some schools, they’re counting on that,” she said.
The transition comes with some caveats. The additional funding is tied to the individual schools, meaning districts can’t distribute the money to other campuses or for additional purposes. Schools that convert to charters also cannot receive funds from the state facility board for 15 years, although Higley Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty said the state has only provided full funding for that account once in the last decade.
“That fund’s been empty for six years, and that’s an empty promise,” he said.
The most severe consequence districts face when deciding to convert traditional schools to charters is if districts consider transitioning those schools back to the traditional model. A district that returns a school back to a traditional campus is forced to pay back all of the additional funding it received in the first place to the state.
“It’s kind of a poison pill if you think about it,” Hegarty said.
Higley is one of several districts across the state that would have had to convert charter campuses back to public schools had the legislation passed. The district opened its two newest schools — Cooley and Sossaman middle schools — as charters prior to the current school year, and other districts like Maricopa Unified and Paradise Valley did the same with some of their traditional schools — six and 11, respectively — ahead of the 2013-14 school year.
Hegarty said any hit to the district’s budget as a result of the legislation wouldn’t have come into play for the current school year, as the additional funds only arrive in the second year aside from students who are new to the district. Because Higley used middle schools in lieu of elementary, it didn’t have to worry about covering costs for kindergarten students like Maricopa or Paradise Valley did.
All three districts would have felt the true brunt of the legislation during the 2014-15 school year, as many districts have already formulated their budgets for that school year. At Higley, Hegarty said the district would have cut an additional $2 million from its 2014-15 school year, which comes on top of the $1.5 million it has to cut. That would have meant fewer teachers for those campuses and potential cuts to programs the district has, or planned to implement, at those campuses for 2014-15 and beyond.
Any future plans to end the additional funding for traditional schools converted to charters could have an effect on districts that haven’t done so. While Mesa Public Schools spokesperson Laurie Struna stated in an email the district is not currently considering converting any of its schools to charters, Berry said the Chandler district has considered the option as state funding continues to decrease and override approval becomes less certain. Chandler received a 15-percent override renewal approved by voters during the 2013 election, although voters rejected the district’s attempt in 2012.
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