Group readies for fight against K-12 budget cuts - East Valley Tribune: News

Group readies for fight against K-12 budget cuts

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Posted: Saturday, December 20, 2008 7:14 pm | Updated: 11:43 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona's Legislature will need to cut at least $1.3 billion from this year's fiscal budget starting in January.

And Arizona's public schools seem to have the biggest bull's-eye available, with funding for kindergarten through 12th-grade making up about 44 percent of the state's budget.

But a parent group from Scottsdale - armed with a list of thousands of voters they can contact by e-mail - is hoping to soften the outcome.

"We're working to make sure the cuts are as far from the classroom as possible," said Jeff Winkler, member and former president of the Scottsdale Parent Council.

The Scottsdale group of moms and dads is one of the most organized in the East Valley. It's also one of the most vocal, with 36,000 parents behind the 26,000 students in Scottsdale's classrooms.

Speculation by educators and parents - as well as a few legislators - is that funding cuts could hit areas such as full-day kindergarten, extracurricular activity tax credits or soft capital funding for items such as books and computers.

"We all know that we are in a dire situation with regard to the state budget, but we must continue to educate our young people even in these tough financial times," said Francesca Thomas, president of the Scottsdale Parent Council. "Finding a way to do that this year and next with the projected shortfalls will be a challenge. It can be done and in a manner that positions us well for recovery, but there are options out there that are not child-centered that we need to avoid."

The Scottsdale Parent Council gives a legislative update each month when members meet. It also encourages Scottsdale parents and others to stay informed through the Arizona Legislative Information System, a Web-based program that tracks what is going on at the state Capitol.

"We also send out legislative alerts informing our parent population when action must be taken imminently - usually in response to a committee hearing," Thomas said. "In addition, this year we hope to take a field trip to the Capitol."

Working en masse is not new to the group, Thomas said. Last year when school districts' utilities funding formula faced the ax, Scottsdale parents sent e-mails, made calls and went to a commerce committee hearing in the Legislature. When a possible budget fix was proposed, Thomas said, members circulated an online petition backing the bill.

"We garnered more than 600 names - despite the fact that for most of us school was already over - and we brought that petition down to the Capitol," Thomas wrote in an e-mail. The fix passed and was signed into law.

This type of grass-roots effort is exactly what's needed, said Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. His group recently started activist training. School boards, parent and community groups are taking part.

"We've probably already done half a dozen trainings in the field across the state to get people prepared to be a spokesperson for the issues that may affect them locally that come up with the state Legislature," Contreras said.

The association also has revived its ASBA Action Response Team, where school board members from around the state work with the association's governmental relations staff to advocate at the Legislature on issues facing public schools.

Contreras has no doubt their voices will be heard - and considered - by lawmakers.

"I think community groups can have a huge impact on what the Legislature does," he said. "It's their local constituency. There's someone famous who said, 'All politics are local.' I think our state legislators understand that, believe that."

David Peterson, interim co-superintendent for the Scottsdale Unified School District, said the district also is preparing for the legislative session.

"We are in contact with our representatives and senators as well as with our community and our legislative lobbyists and our parent groups and professional education organizations," Peterson wrote in an e-mail. "In addition, we collaborate with other school districts and our parent groups also collaborate with parent groups in other districts. We do this to create a common message and so that we have unified efforts."

One way that collaboration of parent groups comes together is with APPLE, or Arizona Parents for PubLic Education. Founded by Scottsdale parents and others, it is a consortium of parent groups from around the East Valley.

"With APPLE members, we will bring a loud and unified voice of support for public education to the Capitol," Thomas said.

Dr. Eric Meyer, a newly elected Democratic legislator, will be listening to those voices. In addition, he's a member of the Scottsdale district governing board.

"The concern is the Legislature will make short-sighted cuts that will adversely impact education today and in the future," Meyer said. "If you cut things like full-day kindergarten and you really have a goal of having every kid read by third grade, which we do, that makes it a much more difficult task to achieve. When those funds get pulled out, the effects of that on those kids we don't have those program for are long lasting."

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