Our view: Budget crunch yields refreshing ideas to stretch school dollars - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Our view: Budget crunch yields refreshing ideas to stretch school dollars

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Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2011 3:30 am | Updated: 4:16 pm, Wed Mar 2, 2011.

The blood-letting has begun at the state Capitol, where lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer are dealing with an $825 million budget deficit in this fiscal year and a $1.4 billion deficit in the next. Some moves are simply a swipe of the ax — such as eliminating Medicaid coverage for certain organ transplants or the Legislature’s approval Thursday of Brewer’s plan to seek a federal waiver allowing the state to temporarily lop off about 280,000 low-income people from its Medicaid rolls.

Other moves are more creative, such as a plan hatched by two Republican lawmakers that addresses another big pot of spending in Arizona’s budget: K-12 education. The state’s public schools, which already endured $600 million to $700 million in cuts in the past several years, are facing more cuts as the state grapples with its budget woes. So on Thursday, Sen. Rich Crandall of Mesa and Rep. Doris Goodale of Kingman proposed a plan to help them cope.

Public education eats up about 42 percent of the state budget. But where school districts are concerned, that money flows down to the local level with rigid rules about how various funds can be spent. Among other things, Crandall and Goodale’s plan would temporarily expand how public schools can spend tax credit donations, which are now limited to extracurricular activities only, and would also allow districts to use unrestricted capital funds for the next two years for any capital or operational purpose.

But the provision of the plan drawing the most attention is the part that would give districts the option of shortening their school year, which is now 180 days, to as few as 170 days. While the kids would be in class fewer days in the year, their school days would be longer, so the amount of instructional time would be the same. The benefit: Districts could trim transportation costs and some utility expenses.

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and former business superintendent in the Mesa Unified School District, called the plan a refreshing change from what public schools usually hear from the state Legislature. AASBO, Arizona School Administrators, and the Arizona School Boards Association worked with Crandall and Goodale on the proposal. The details of the education relief bill will be released this week, but among other things, it would also allow districts to have unlimited budget carryover for the next two years, and would reduce notice time districts are now required to follow if they want to close a school.

There are some concerns about the plan, especially the possible reduction of school days. Sen. Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said some districts may try to cut teachers’ salaries by 5.5 percent based on them having to work 10 fewer days, despite their workdays being longer. It would also likely increase the number of days working parents have to find child care options for their kids.

Yes, such concerns should be addressed and the details of the plan need to be ironed out. But what we’ve heard so far sounds like some promising creative thinking that might help our public schools weather a brutal economic storm.

Crandall recently told a task force in the Mesa school district that there is a “nearly 100 percent chance” the district will have to cut $85 million over the next four years. He urged the group, which is tasked with coming up with budget-cutting ideas and new ways of delivering education, to be innovative.

That’s what Crandall and Goodale are trying to do, too: If they can’t give our public schools money, then maybe they can give them flexibility.

Coming from our Legislature, it is, as Essigs put it, a “refreshing” change.

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