School officials plead with lawmakers over funding

'Please don't do this to us'

Roger Jacks

Roger Jacks

KINGMAN - Roger Jacks, superintendent of Kingman Unified School District, recently added his name to a list of 233 school district superintendents throughout the state on a letter protesting educational cuts in Gov. Doug Ducey's executive budget proposal.

The letter was sent to all members of the Arizona Legislature, who will be voting on the budget proposal.

"What this means to us in our district is that we feel we are pretty lean now and don't have many places to cut," said Jacks. "I hope this letter makes a difference. It's a really big statement that 200-plus superintendents came together and said 'Please don't do this to us.'"

The letter likely will be the topic of a conversation scheduled today between Jacks and state Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who is touring the school districts she represents.

"I have seen the letter, and I'm sure it will come up in our conversation," said Ward, who is chairman of the Arizona Senate Education Committee. "The superintendents have concerns about budget cuts, and they want to be sure they are done with precision and not a hatchet. I also want to see smart spending cuts."

Ducey, who took office in January, announced a classrooms-first initiative in his first State of the State address that would shift state spending from support to actual classroom teaching. Ducey has created a team to look at the state's school funding formulas to identify ways to get more money into the classroom.

Ducey recommended a 5 percent reduction in non-classroom spending for district schools and a 3.5 percent reduction to charter additional assistance. The goals of the reductions are to decrease the size of school administration and re-focus the schools on students and teachers.

Non-classroom spending for districts includes administration, plant operations, food service, transportation, student support and instruction support.

The letter, which began by noting public school leaders' concern with the executive budget proposal, was emailed Feb. 17 to legislators. It noted that for the past six years, in order to balance the state budget, the majority of Arizona's classrooms have been "shortchanged by the actions of our elected officials."

"During this time, classroom teachers, principals and district leaders have been burdened with ever-increasing requirements that further erode the instructional time and direct services available to our classrooms. To this end, we ask you to adopt a budget that does not cut funding to K-12 district schools."

Previous reductions to districts' budgets, according to the letter, have included full-day kindergarten and instructional materials funds, both classroom expenses. Also, there has been a failure by the state to fund inflation, which would have helped with classroom expenses.

The letter noted the budget proposal reduces the funding to districts, and the students they serve, by an estimated $120 per student. That hurts a vast number of districts, the letter added, because the funds slated to be cut in the budget proposal from support services already have been transferred into paying for classroom staff and services.

Many of the dollars remaining in non-classroom categories are subject to limitations and regulations by funding sources, according to the letter, and other non-classroom funds pay for services whose fees are fixed, such as utilities and technology licensing.

As a result, the letter noted, reductions in funding will be reflected in reduced hours or layoffs for essential staff. They include crossing guards and security, school bus drivers and mechanics, nurses, psychologists, custodians, maintenance workers and office staff, including district supervisors, assistant principals and teacher trainers.

Jacks said these staff members are crucial to the success of KUSD - crossing guards and security staff provide safety at the schools, bus drivers and mechanics bring safety on the roads. Nurses and psychologists care for vulnerable students and those with special needs, said Jacks, and custodians and maintenance workers keep up the buildings.

The district had instituted a bus plan that would ensure none of its buses were more than 15 years old by purchasing five new buses a year, said Jacks. But that plan was modified because of state funding cuts, and the district has been forced to resort to buying used buses instead.

It recently purchased four 2001 model buses from Phoenix with 100,000 miles on them to replace some of its oldest buses, said Jacks. Currently, the district has three buses from the 1980s and 28 buses from the 1990s, while the rest are 2000 and newer models. Jacks said the oldest buses are safe, but require a lot of maintenance to keep them reliable.

As for building maintenance, said Jacks, the district was "blessed" with a bond that passed in 2006 and provided funds for maintenance and repairs. But nine years have passed, and now the district is faced with finding more money.

Jacks said he has talked to other superintendents who have similar concerns about building maintenance.

The district also stepped out on a limb by funding all-day kindergarten, said Jacks, which many districts in Arizona have been forced to drop because of a lack of financing. KUSD tried eliminating it for two years to save money, but the district's first- and second-grade teachers saw such a negative difference in their students that it was reinstated.

"It's really hard on us when we see a reduction in funds from the state or are getting guidance on where to spend what we have available," said Jacks, noting all-day kindergarten takes away from support service funds. "We don't want to cut back on support services, but we would be forced to look at them if this budget proposal is passed by the Legislature."

In the letter to the legislators, the 233-plus superintendents wrote that the well-being of Arizona and the potential of its citizens are threatened by the failure to adequately invest in the development of all young people. The superintendents noted they were sharing their concerns for that reason.

"The proposed reductions, if enacted, will affect student achievement, student health and campus security," the letter noted. "By any measure, the proposed cuts will have an overall detrimental impact on student success, making the mission of educating Arizona's youth even more challenging."