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Robb: School districts’ panic is premature

From the political notebook:

• The panic that is taking place in school district budgeting is, at best, premature. At worst, it is irresponsible political theater.

In the first place, state general fund support for K-12 education has not been reduced yet.

Although general fund spending for this year was reduced from what was originally appropriated, it remained above what was appropriated last year. A reduction in the rate of increase doesn’t warrant the panic that has seized school districts.

Second, the federal stimulus money available for schools exceeds any cuts that have been proposed.

The state will receive $832 million in federal stimulus money for education, to be split between K-12 and higher education. Exactly how much K-12 will receive is up for grabs, but it certainly should be more than half.

In addition to these funds going through the state, school districts will receive nearly $400 million in stimulus money directly.

The state also gets $185 million in general purpose stimulus money that could be used for K-12 education.

So, there should be around $1 billion in stimulus money potentially available for K-12 education.

The Legislature cut $133 million in general fund support for K-12 in this year’s budget fix. The proposals for next year’s budget being circulated among Republicans have a cut in the range of $350 million. So, the cuts under discussion are far less than the federal stimulus money that might be available.

• Educators also complain about financial squeezes occurring outside the general fund budget debate.

The amount that school districts get from the classroom site fund – revenues distributed from the special education sales tax and increases in state land trust fund income – is expected to go down by nearly $100 million next year.

School districts are complaining about having to absorb some utility costs they have been paying for through a property tax whose authority expires next year. In this case, they have only themselves to blame.

They have known for nine years that this authority went away next year. Rather than responsibly ramping down dependence, they decided to play fiscal chicken, ratcheting up dependence as the deadline approached, counting on the Legislature bailing them out.

That probably isn’t in the cards, which sticks the districts with around $118 million in new expenses to absorb.

But even the reduction in the classroom site fund and absorbing the utility costs doesn’t approach the stimulus money that might be available.

• Things could still turn out badly. To solve the remaining deficit for this year, the Legislature might make additional paper cuts to K-12, backfilling with stimulus funds.

That could leave substantially less stimulus money available to compensate for state general fund cuts next year. Discretionary stimulus money could go to other programs.

The uncertainty, however, illustrates why the panic is at least premature. It also illustrates the wisdom of Republican legislators who wanted to delay the day on which districts had to make teacher contract renewal decisions, which is causing most of the panic.

This was opposed by the teachers’ union and legislative Democrats, who prevented the delay from occurring – suggesting their interest was primarily in promoting the political theater, rather than a sensible school district budgeting process.

• Gov. Jan Brewer’s routine of claiming that anyone who opposes her temporary tax increase just doesn’t understand the problem has gotten tired and needs to be retired.

In the first place, it’s just not true. Many legislators opposing a temporary tax increase are just as or more knowledgeable about the state’s financial condition and the budget options as she is.

In the second place, it doesn’t jibe with her continuing refusal to identify specific budget cuts she would support and specific taxes she would raise.

If Brewer is unwilling to put her self-proclaimed superior knowledge and insight to work by putting specific proposals on the table, she should quit disparaging the ken of those who are.

Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com

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