Reaction to school funding fix is mixed

KINGMAN - Local school districts are voicing approval of an education funding bill Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law on Friday that will bring $3.5 billion to Arizona schools over the next 10 years.

Pending a special election on May 17 to amend the state constitution to allocate those funds, the two school districts in Kingman will see more than $1.5 million in additional funds this upcoming year. Voters need to approve an amendment to a portion of the state's constitution that determines the minimum amount of money per student that goes to districts.

"I'm really proud of our state. A lot of agencies came together to have that happen," said Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks. KUSD estimates an infusion of $1.3 million in the next fiscal year if voters pass the constitutional amendment.

The district will have to make do for fiscal year 2016-2017, however, as it needs to approve a budget prior to the election date.

Budget workshops start this week for KUSD, and school officials are planning to be conservative in this year's budget in case the amendment proposal doesn't get voter approval. That money will be available retroactively if the amendment passes, and the district will be able to adjust the budget accordingly.

"I'm hoping voters will vote for it. It feels like it's positively received," said Jacks.

At the Kingman Academy of Learning, district administrator Susan Chan and her staff are dealing with a slightly different set of challenges. Because they are a charter school, they cannot go to the voters for a school bond or additional money.

Her district has had to live strictly within its budget, so any kind of funding increase from the state is welcome.

"Just having that breathing room, we can count on having additional money for supplies and increases in employee benefits," said Chan. The district will see approximately $250,000 if the amendment passes.

"It does not replace what we've lost in total. However, it's a pretty good percentage of what we should be getting. It's a good compromise."

Chan is still concerned about education funding as a whole, which is significantly lower than neighboring states. Even with an increase like this, Arizona struggles to pay teachers a salary that's competitive with other states in the region. That makes recruitment and retaining teachers difficult, especially for rural districts such as KUSD and KAOL.

"It's difficult, and the state needs to step up and figure out how to fix that. This increase is a step in the right direction," added Chan.

Mending Self-Inflicted Cuts?

While Ducey and his office are celebrating what he's calling a "bipartisan, fiscally responsible" education package, some critics say the districts have yet to recoup the losses dating back to the Great Recession.

One of the key components of the package is resolving a lawsuit filed in 2010 against the state for underfunding schools.

"Improving our public schools and doing what's best for our students has always been our goal and this is a first step in a larger education funding conversation at the state level. This settlement only resolves the failure to fund inflation," said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association.

"We still need to restore the massive cuts to schools made during the recession. Settling the lawsuit allows our state to focus on restoring funding to other portions of the education budget, including full-day kindergarten, JTED programs, and district additional assistance for textbooks, curriculum, technology, and building repairs."

The Arizona School Boards Association echoed those sentiments.

"We can't begin to solve the bigger educational issues in Arizona without getting past the inflation lawsuit," said Heidi Vega, media spokeswomanfor the ASBA in a statement.

"In seeing the big picture, we now must pivot and focus not only on the importance of the bond and override elections next week, but also by recognizing this is just the beginning of trying to correct the educational challenges of our schools by the lack of state financial support," she added.

Arizona currently ranks 49th in spending per student, beating out Idaho and Utah. Arizona has been ranked in the bottom five states since at least 2008.