Legislature takes step toward lifting school spending limit, but 'catastrophe' still looms
With the clock ticking down to a March 5 deadline, lawmakers have taken a first step toward allowing Arizona's school districts to spend the money they were given in the state budget and avoid deep budget cuts in the closing months of the school year.
The vote by the House Education Committee on Tuesday sets in motion efforts to raise the spending limit for schools this year. It's a repeat of last year's drama over school spending, and given current budget trends, is all but guaranteed to repeat in future years.
Whether the full Legislature will muster the needed votes to raise the spending cap is unclear; skepticism toward the state's public schools runs high among many Republican lawmakers. If they fail to act, schools face major staff layoffs and, especially for rural districts, an early end to the school year.
Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, made that clear when she voted "present" on House Bill 2458. The chair of the committee, Pingerelli said she brought the bill up for a vote to get the conversation started. But she said she is frustrated with the lack of academic achievement in the public schools and wants to see improvement.
Other committee members argued that if schools must make the 17% budget cuts required if the spending cap remains in place, such improvements won't come easily.
They got support from Tom Horne, the Republican state schools superintendent.
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He said schools not getting the increased spending authority would create a disaster, adding it would hamper the school-improvement plans he is launching at the Department of Education.
"If this catastrophe hits our schools, it will throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing," Horne said.
The argument is simple, he said: the Legislature should allow schools to spend the money that lawmakers gave them just months ago.
Why Arizona schools have spending limit
Lawmakers last June made an historic investment in the public schools, adding $1 billion to the base formula that feeds school budgets. But that amount pushed combined school budgets up against what is called the "aggregate expenditure limit," a four-decades-old constitutional cap that many argue is out of date.
The cap applies only to district public schools; charter schools, which are publicly funded, did not exist when voters approved the limit in 1980.
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The current K-12 budget exceeds that limit by $1.4 billion, which works out to a 17% cut in each district. Horne noted the impact is closer to a 70% reduction, given it would be compressed into the final months of the school year, rather than spread out over an entire term.
Such steep cuts would force some schools to close early, said Tim Carter, the Yavapai County school superintendent. His office is charged with distributing state dollars to the schools and Carter said many in his rural district would not make it to the end of the school year if they are forced to cut their budgets.
Budget cuts, or even the threat of them, dampen the prospects of retaining teachers, much less attracting them, Carter said.
“Do you really think I’m going to be a teacher here next year, when I can go to almost any other state and get a job?” he said.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe and sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 2001, said the impact goes beyond classroom walls. In many communities, the local public school is an important part of the economy, with jobs from cafeteria workers to school bus drivers at risk of layoffs.
To avoid the cuts, the Legislature must muster a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. The governor's signature is not needed, although Gov. Katie Hobbs has urged lawmakers to end the drama and raise the cap.
Cook's bill passed on an 8-1-1 vote, with Pingerelli voting "present."
Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, was the only "no" vote, although he called the spending cap issue a "tangled mess" that needs a solution. He added it was reassuring to know the bill would pass despite his opposition.
Bipartisan support for raising spending limit
Rep. David Marshall, R-Snowflake, said it's ridiculous to contemplate closing the schools after the closures caused during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t demonize all our schools because a few are having problems," he said.
“We need to revise and reform the aggregate expenditure limit," he continued. "Because this battle is ugly. I don’t like it, and I just got here.”
Marshall is a freshman lawmaker.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, noted she has introduced bills that, if passed, would avoid what is becoming this annual cliffhanger drama on school budget.
Those bills have yet to receive a hearing.
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