Arizona school districts are damned if they don’t and damned if they do.
They have to write their budgets without solid information, because Gov. Jan Brewer hasn’t said how federal money might be used – and no one knows what the state budget will look like and whether it will reflect cuts or increases in tax.
By law, school districts have to warn teachers of potential layoffs no later than April 15, though they may not have to get rid of all of those teachers after all.
And in the midst of all this insanity, state schools chief Tom Horne is telling districts not to panic, not to “overcut” their budgets and not to destroy the confidence of their staffs.
He’s also assuring them that K-12 education won’t be cut more than 2 percent – a promise that rings hollow.
Tucson Unified School District, for example, is operating under the threat of as much as $63 million in funding cuts – meaning 15 percent to 18 percent – the worst-case figure given to TUSD by the head of the Senate Education Committee.
Horne’s optimistic projection of 2 percent cuts – even if true – means 2 percent of district budgets that already have been drastically cut this year.
And the 2 percent doesn’t take into account the higher costs of utilities, health benefits, exceptional education, English language learning, workers’ and unemployment compensation or, in many districts, decreased enrollment.
If the governor and Legislature won’t give school districts guidance on what funding to expect, then district superintendents are wise to prepare for the worst.
But in a landscape littered with pink slips, teachers also will prepare for the worst – and many of them will seek work out of state or perhaps even decide to leave teaching altogether.
Horne is correct in noting that an exodus of teachers would be a huge problem for Arizona’s schools.
But the solution to that problem is not for superintendents to ignore reality and assume the cuts won’t be too deep, as Horne seems to suggest.
Rather, the solution lies with the governor and legislators, who must decide how they will fund schools.
If they’re true leaders, they will decide to keep a healthy tax base (rather than continue tax cuts due to expire), and they will accept all stimulus money available and funnel as much of it as possible to schools.
Damage to schools, including teacher losses, can take decades to undo. As much as possible, lawmakers should first do no harm.