Flagstaff, AZ – The Flagstaff Unified School District is asking voters to help fill its budget gap. The district anticipates a large cut from the state. The governor and state legislature still haven't agreed on how much to cut K-through-12 education. Lawmakers have proposed anywhere from 7 million to 14 million dollars in cuts from Flagstaff schools. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this report.
Recently Flagstaff Unified School District leaders spoke to parents, teachers and students about how the district is funded. About two hundred people came out for the forum held at Coconino High School.
HICKMAN: I worked at four different states at school districts. And I have to tell you Arizona's school funding is one of the more confusing that there is.
Interim Superintendent Barbara Hickman and other school leaders are trying to educate voters.
Six years ago Flagstaff voters passed a 10 percent override that's due to phase out next year. In November the district asked voters for another 10 percent override. They rejected it. So FUSD is asking again, this time for up to 15 percent of the amount the state decides to allot to the district.
If voters approve the current 15 percent Maintenance and Operation Budget Override the average homeowner would pay about 160 dollars a year. (The district estimates the total amount will be about 7 point 7 million dollars for the next school year.)
In her office Hickman explained why district overrides are necessary.
HICKMAN: As the state has gotten poorer and poorer they've moved the funding of public schools and lots of other public institutions to the local level. If you believe a long term commitment to K-12 education is an important thing for your state then you have to believe you have to fund it at a level where schools can do more than provide just a basic program.
The district is currently operating on a 64 million dollar maintenance and operation budget. That's the money that pays for salaries, benefits and supplies. That comes out to roughly 46-hundred dollars per student. (Special education students and English Language Learners get more.)
Adrianne Sanchez, the district's budget and finance director, says the schools require at least 58 million dollars to pay for core and essential programs.
SANCHEZ: Whenever the state decides what our budget is going to be, we'll know how deep we can cut into the different levels how close to the core we have to get.
FUSD employs 730 teachers. There are other people who are certified staff but they're paid out of state and federal grants. If the override does not pass up to a hundred teachers could lose their jobs.
The district employs another 500 classified staff, 15 administrators at the district level and 27 building administrators. That's about 13-hundred people all together.
FUSD's administrative costs were 33 percent higher than average for comparable districts according to the 2006 auditor general's report. Hickman and other administrators say they're working at shrinking that number.
HICKMAN: One of the reasons our admin costs are higher than average is we have more buildings than most districts. When we're running buildings at an average of 77 percent capacity you have more administrative costs.
The school district is expected to close and consolidate some schools later this year. This issue is separate from the override and KNAU will have a report next month when the board is expected to vote on the issue.
Concerned citizen Bruce Johnson has followed the district for a couple decades and has sat on the district's budget committee. He says now is not the time to be asking for money.
JOHNSON: Everybody in this economy is hurting. We're having a tough go in the country, in the state, even in Flagstaff now. People are out of work. People are losing their homes. Taxes are going up at every level. The county just increased taxes by 18 percent the school district doesn't seem to give people the feeling that they und that. They seem to think they deserve more money instead of less which is what everyone else has to deal with.
Interim Superintendent Hickman says Flagstaff either pays now or pays later.
HICKMAN: If you want to look at a long term strategy for how to avoid costs in prisons, social services and other kinds of programs that support people who cannot find work, then it would seem to me a K-12 education would be an important way to do that. We can pay to help people now or pay to help them later.
Arizona consistently ranks at the bottom in per pupil funding. Currently it's ranked 46th. But Johnson says the district could do more with less.
JOHNSON: There is no correlation between how much is spent per pupil and outcomes at public schools. The area that spends the most money is Washington DC and they're consistently at the bottom in student achievement. It's not a matter of money it's how the money is used.
HICKMAN: I'm not suggesting the more money you throw at it the better it gets because I don't think you can make that correlation there are well funded districts in this country that aren't excellent districst. But there are certainly a lot of extra things that lots of people believe are important. If you believe a K12 music program by certified teachers is good for kids and makes a well rounded student and provides opportunities and creates the kind of person you want as your neighbors then you have to pay for it.
In other words programs like music, art and PE would be cut if the override is rejected.
Still Johnson and other critics would like to see more being done to reform the district.
JOHNSON: If they came forth with an override proposal that was truly aimed at reforming the way I'd be out there advocating for it. I'd be leading the charge.
Voters have until the evening of March 9th to turn in or mail their ballots. They must be received by the 9th to be counted.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.