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Schools scramble to meet budget cuts

Citizen Staff Writer



Tucson Unified School District’s decision last summer not to give pay raises to employees may have been unpopular then but it’s looking pretty smart now in lieu of budget cuts imposed by the Legislature last week.

The resulting carry forward, or rainy day fund, of $6.2 million for 2008-09, will help the district absorb a funding cut of more than $8 million for the rest of the school year. But other Pima County school districts are talking about hiring freezes and reducing summer school.

Amphitheater Public Schools, which must cut almost $1.6 million from its maintenance and operations budget this school year, has no carry forward, Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger said. The district isn’t sure what it will do, but knows it will have to do something soon, probably next week, he said.

“The average employee makes about $46,000 to $47,000,” he said, but most employees are under contract. “So the cut is about the equivalent of 32 employees; or it’s a 2 percent salary decrease across the board – although we haven’t talked specifically about that. We’re looking at different scenarios. And we are going to try to avoid doing anything that would take someone’s job this year.”

He said he is hoping much of the money can be saved by not filling vacant jobs.

“We do know we are going to try to keep the cuts as far away from schools as possible,” Jaeger said. “But that’s hard to do when we already are doing that as much as possible. We’re having almost daily meetings on the budget issue.”

Jaeger said Amphi tries to have “half a million to a million dollars in carry forward, but budget circumstances being what they were, we didn’t have that. We had about $1,000 at the beginning of the year and that’s gone.”

Across the state for the rest of this fiscal year, public schools districts had $98 million in reductions in base level funding, a 2.343 percent average cut, and $21 million in cuts for soft capital (computers and textbooks), a 10.5 percent cut.

Charter schools had a $4 million reduction, a 2.55 percent cut in additional assistance, said Department of Education spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico.

Stephanie Grisham, communications director for the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said, “school districts have roughly 900,000 students while charters serve 100,000 . . . so the cuts done by the Legislature are quite equitable.”

Most local districts report they are trying to avoid layoffs for this first of two cuts by the Legislature. The second cut is expected to come in the budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Public school funding could be reduced more than 20 percent from the current year’s funding, including the cuts just imposed, some state education officials predict.

Since salaries and benefits usually account for almost 90 percent of district budgets, layoffs seem almost a certainty next fiscal year, they said.

This year, however, Marana and Flowing Wells unified school districts, which historically try to set aside close to the maximum allowed for carry forward, should have enough money to weather this storm better than other districts. Districts can carry forward up to 4 percent of their operating budgets each year.

Still, Marana spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the governing board met Thursday night to address the issue for next year. The district plans to have a couple of forums in March to hear from the public. In the meantime, Marana and Flowing Wells are looking to cut corners.

Marana is accepting applications for substitutes only for health aides and special education aides. It is “closely reviewing any request for capital expenditure, supplies, travel and training,” Crawley said. “And we have eliminated any out-of-state recruiting efforts.”

Flowing Wells has moved from a soft hiring freeze to a hard freeze, meaning only essential positions will be filled. And supplies will be bought only for health and safety issues, said Superintendent Nic Clement.

“I don’t think we anticipated in July of 2008 that we would get a 2 percent hit now, so we didn’t do the budget that way, but being at the limit for a carry forward gives us some flexibility,” he said.

TUSD has a $6.2 million carry-forward for 2008-09 in its $362 million maintenance and operations budget; a $2.7 million carry forward in its $12.6 million soft capital budget; and a $700,000 carry forward in its $6.8 million unrestricted capital budget.

“We don’t have to cut anything for this year – programs, teachers, classrooms, nothing,” said Communications & Media Relations Director Chyrl Hill Lander. She said the TUSD hit from the state is about $6.8 million in maintenance and operations and nearly $1.8 million in soft capital for items such as textbooks and computers.

TUSD’s $6.2 million maintenance and operations carry forward compares to $193,000 available the previous year, a figure that worried new Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen. On July 1, she took over a district that was battling a public image that it was not transparent or fiscally responsible.

It was at the 34-year-old Fagen’s insistence – and the insistence of new financial leaders in TUSD last year – that the millions would go untouched for raises, which were estimated, along with benefits, to cost TUSD $2.8 million for each 1 percentage point increase in salaries.

As for this year, Lander said TUSD still “will implement measures to maximize our ability to stretch our existing resources and provide carry-forward dollars for the next fiscal year. We will be carefully reviewing all position openings and travel requests and Human Resources is considering freezes on non-essential positions.”

The TUSD Budget Advisory Committee also is working to establish priorities to help guide the district in developing next year’s budget, she said.

Next year, TUSD expects to be required to cut $20 million to $80 million from its budget.

In an e-mail to employees Wednesday Fagen said that the more than 1 percent carry forward meant “we will not need to impact any employees’ contracts this year.” But “2010 is another matter. We have no idea where the Legislature is going to land with regard to education cuts in 2010. We do know that they have a $3 billion-plus deficit for 2010, that education is 40 percent of their discretionary (not voter protected) budget, and the state leadership has said they will not agree to any new taxes (including the suspended county equalization tax).

“We must hope and work for the best and plan for the worst. We have no other choice,” Fagen added. “There is no question that central services will be reduced next year as a result of this pending budget reduction.

“We are starting with central office in creating $30 million, $40 million and $60 million (reduction) scenarios to present to the TUSD (School-Community) Partnership . . . and we are preparing to propose to the Partnership that we provide schools with full-time equivalent (FTE) allocations that the district can afford (based on enrollment) under the $30 million, $40 million and $60 million reduction scenarios,” she said.

School site councils then will be given a “menu” to accompany their FTE allocations “whereby they can choose to ‘spend’ their FTE any way they feel is best for their school,” Fagen wrote, “as long as it is legal, etc.”

Sunnyside Unified School District Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo met in a special meeting with the governing board early Thursday morning to talk about the budget and prepare members for questions from the public and staff. He met with principals after that.

He has assured employees no one will be laid off this school year but said site improvements and repairs, as well as technology and other capital purchases, would be minimized.

“Only crucial safety repairs will be done,” a district information sheet stated. And school communications will be sent home with students to reduce postage costs.

Teachers are being asked to take fewer days off to save about $250,000 in costs for substitutes. Monique Soria, Sunnyside’s public relations director, said last year the district spent $1.3 million on substitutes, and so far this year has spent $600,000.

Summer school will change from a five-day a week program to four days a week and from 17 sites to seven or fewer. “We will not turn students away, but this will enable us to save money on utilities and staffing and to be more efficient,” Soria said.

Public School funding cuts for 2008-09

District Cuts to Cuts to Carry forward

M&O soft capital* for this year

TUSD $6.8 million $1.8 million $8.9 million

Marana $1.344 million $281,000 $2 million

Flowing Wells $800,000 $125,000 $1.1 million**

Sunnyside $900,000 $500,000 $800,00

Amphi $1.6 million $353,000 none

* computers, textbooks, durable equipment such as copiers

**$600,000 in soft capital of $1.1 million carry forward already used to purchase science books and kits

M&O is the maintenance and operations budget through which most school functions are paid.

Rally for Public Education

Public school supporters are organizing a rally at the state Capitol from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 26 at the State Capitol.

The Sunnyside Education Association and an anonymous donor will pay the cost of 10 buses, which will leave from Sunnyside and Desert View high schools, starting at 7:30 a.m. The buses should hold about 500 people and rally organizers are hoping that parents, students, educators and the public will go.

For more information, e-mail rally organizers at Rally4PublicEd@email.com

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