Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

School districts worry they will lose improvement bucks

Arizona’s decision to defer payments of $300 million to school districts expecting the money by Friday means the districts will have to take out loans to meet payrolls.

Tucson-area districts are worried about losing capital funds saved for new schools and other improvements. The loans, registered warrants, come from the county treasurer’s office and districts pay interest on them.

The budget deal, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday, closes a $650 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year by taking $400 million from the school districts and universities and using $250 million in federal stimulus funding.

It pushes $100 million of state aid for universities and $300 million of state payments to school districts into next fiscal year.

Sunnyside was expecting $6.4 million Friday, spokeswoman Monique Soria said, “and now we won’t get it until next fiscal year.”

Another wrinkle: Districts that have saved money exceeding 4 percent of their maintenance and operations budgets, which is the state cap, will not get the money at all because the plan requires districts to pay back their share of the $300 million from the excess funds.

The Tucson Unified School District, which had expected $32 million Friday, doesn’t have carryover money the state can “sweep,” spokeswoman Chyrl Hill Lander said.

Neither does Marana Unified, said Chief Financial Officer Dan Contorno. Still, he’s worried, based on the wording of the legislation, that other funds may be at risk.

Marana has about $3 million in carry-forward funds in unrestricted and soft capital: money being saved for things like new schools, textbooks and replacing buses that break down.

“I think the Legislature intended to protect the 4 percent in M&O (maintenance and operation) plus any balances in unrestricted and soft capital, but that’s not the way it’s worded,” Contorno said.

Amphi’s Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent regarding legal counsel, had similar concerns.

“This could impact our programs and our schools that have wisely and appropriately accrued capital funds over time to enable them to make large purchases,” he said.

As for the University of Arizona, roughly $40 million in state aid will be held back until the fiscal year that begins July 1. Johnny Cruz, director of media relations, said UA will have to rely on cash reserves maintained by some of its self-sustaining operations such as the bookstore, residence halls and the Student Union.

Citizen Staff Writer Eric Sagara contributed to this article.

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