PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday trotted out a five-year plan to restore funding for state schools’ capital needs to what it was before the Great Recession.
The proposal would put an immediate $100 million this coming school year into an account earmarked for “soft capital,” things such as computers, books and school buses.
He hopes to boost that amount to $371 million by the final year of the plan. He also wants to give school districts flexibility, allowing local boards to use the dollars for other priorities, ranging from construction to teacher salaries.
The offer comes nearly a year after a coalition of schools and educators filed suit against the state charging it is not living up to its constitutional obligations to provide adequate funding for school buildings, equipment and repairs. It comes three days before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin hears legal arguments in that case.
“I’m super encouraged that we’re talking with (state) leadership about getting Arizona’s education back in balance,” said Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard, one of some 80 superintendent and school administrators to attend Ducey’s 8 a.m. announcement at the capital.
Howard said he sees Ducey’s proposal as a step forward with “much more work to do.”
“But it’s the right conversation,” Howard said.
The governor said he believes his proposal, if implemented by the Legislature, will go a long way to resolving the case without further court action.
“I would much rather be paying teachers than paying lawyers,” Ducey said.
Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman said Ducey’s offer won’t make the state’s legal problems go away.
“At this point, the case is moving forward,” said Kotterman, whose association is one of the plaintiffs.
A spokesperson for a fellow plaintiff, the Avondale Elementary School District, said Ducey’s plan is worthy of consideration.
Aside from the restoration of “soft capital” funding, she noted the governor’s plan also includes $51.8 million for school repairs and proposes to borrow another $88 million to build five new schools, the location of which was not specified, said Jill Barragan, the district’s executive business director.
“At some point, we have to determine are we going to go the litigation route, which who knows how long that could take, or are we going to try to address things legislatively and through the governor,” she said.
The lawsuit, however, is only one part of the K-12 funding dilemma.
Various educational and business interests cite figures that show current financing for schools is now $1.1 billion below where it would have been had lawmakers not slashed funding during the recession.
Save Our Schools Arizona spokesperson Dawn Penich-Thacker said the governor’s proposal amounts to just 10 cents on the dollar, or only about $100 per student. She chided Ducey for suggesting this is “new” money for schools.
“It is simply paying back a portion of what was taken out of the budget a decade ago,” Penich-Thacker said. “Paying someone back is not leadership.”
Arizona PTA President Beth Simek said there may be less to Ducey’s proposal than advertised.
She noted the governor’s plan is built on there being enough money from existing tax revenues, something Simek said is far from a certainty.
“So without a dedicated revenue source, how is that going to help us to sort out the problem with underfunded and overcrowded classrooms?” she asked.
In Ducey’s favor, Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter, president of the state Board of Education, said he is living up to his word.
Without raising taxes, Carter said Ducey is proposing a way to reinvest in K-12 schools in a meaningful way.
And that is good news.
The bad news is this proposal still falls short of reducing the shortfall created a decade ago, he said.
“Even if he is able to do what he has proposed, and I think he will give it a valid effort, it still doesn’t get us to the point where schools are adequately funded … we still have this significant financial divide that we will have to deal with sooner or later.”
Ducey conceded he is relying solely on “available resources.” He brushed aside figures prepared by legislative budget analysts which show that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, the state is putting fewer dollars per student into K-12 education now than it did a decade ago.
“This is a way to play with the numbers,” he said.
Ducey said while the money in his plan is to restore the “soft capital” formula, he said his proposal offers schools flexibility in how the dollars can be used. The governor said that could help eliminate calls to come up with additional funds specifically earmarked to increase teacher pay.
State Schools Chief Diane Douglas said it would be “wonderful” if Ducey’s plan is enacted. But it does not eliminate the need to increase the current 0.6-cent education sales tax to a full penny.
“We still need to look at our teacher salaries,” she said.
Arizona ranks at, or near, the bottom of the nation when it comes to teacher salaries.
In unveiling her education funding plan last year, Douglas figured $300 million of that would go to teacher pay, a figure she said would translate into a 10 percent across-the-board pay hike for teachers who this year got a 1 percent raise with state dollars. The other $100 million would start restoring capital funding for schools.
The benefit of Ducey’s plan, if it becomes law, is that the entire $400 million in additional cash could be earmarked for teacher pay, she said.
Other proposals being floated by business interests are even more aggressive, including one proposing to take the levy to 1.6 percent, raising an extra $1 billion a year.
In Prescott, Howard said this proposal would likely provide about half a million dollars to the district for such things as new textbooks and curriculum, advanced technology and building repairs. Any leftover dollars would then be available so district leadership could continue to elevate salaries as part of its ongoing commitment to retaining the best classroom teachers.
He said he sees this as a “pretty aggressive plan” to kick start educational funding enhancements state residents have continually stated must be a top state budget priority.
“Anything is better than zero,” Howard said.
The Daily Courier staff writer Nanci Hutson contributed to this story.