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Horne cautions districts on budget cuts

Stimulus aid will help budgets, he says Schools chief tells districts that now is not time to make panic moves

Arizona’s schools chief is telling districts not to go overboard in cutting their budgets, saying it’s not the time to make panic moves that destroy the confidence of teachers and the quality of their work.

School districts are working on their spending plans now. But their planning is hampered because they don’t know how much the Legislature might cut school spending in the new state budget.

Schools are also under the gun to make teacher layoffs by the legally mandated deadline of April 15, so they’re cutting.

State schools chief Tom Horne said he’s already heard from jumpy teachers worried about job security. He said they’re telling him they’re thinking about leaving the profession.

“It’s a very upsetting thing to get a notice that your job is not being renewed,” he said. “It should not be done lightly.”

Horne said some districts have “overreacted” and are planning layoffs based on the assumption that budget cuts will total 60 percent. But he expects federal stimulus money to minimize the hit to education.

Horne said K-12 is probably exposed to no more than a 2 percent cut, and that’s assuming higher education doesn’t take a hit, which he said is unlikely.

But the districts – waiting in money limbo for the Legislature to agree on a budget – are moving ahead with spending plans. Some also have had their financial pictures affected by failed bonds and overrides and loss of money from declining enrollment.

The Dysart Unified School District is considering budget cuts for varying amounts as it waits for the state to announce its budget. Its worst-case scenario is a $20 million cut.

The Madison School District in Phoenix is cutting more than $657,000 from the current-year budget and expects to cut $3.3 million to $4.4 million in next year’s budget. In its worst-case scenario, the district would lose 59 of around 365 teachers and about 14 of 392 staff members.

Tolleson Union High School District officials are considering furloughing district administration and cutting the school year by three days to lessen job cuts.

Mesa school administrators say they could lose $30 million to $60 million. The district was expected to lay off about 200 of its 4,500 teachers and 100 of its approximately 5,500 staff members today.

Mesa has been making financial plans for several months and isn’t changing course. Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for Mesa Public Schools, said it doesn’t want to promise jobs that may not be there when the budget is final. Still, she said it’s hard to lose good teachers, especially those in math and science.

“This process is the hardest thing a principal will ever do, facing someone who is part of the school family and saying, ‘You don’t have a job next year,’ ” she said.

Tracey Benson, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said the group is recommending that school boards and districts be cautious and pragmatic when planning their spending, without being panicky.

“There’s a big difference between caution and planning for Armageddon,” she said.

Andrew Morrill, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, thinks it’s bad strategy to focus on cuts. He said districts should stand together and tell the Legislature that education shouldn’t be cut at all.

The state’s revenue structure should be overhauled so education is a priority, he said.

“If anybody is creating a sense of panic, it is the state Legislature by failing to address this shortfall,” Morrill said.

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