/ Modified aug 25, 2022 8:43 a.m.

Cochise County schools meet with state lawmakers

A cap on school spending was the topic of conversation.

360 capitol museum phx The Arizona Capitol Museum building at the State Capitol in Phoenix.
AZPM Staff

Local School Superintendents gathered for a meeting with Cochise County Superintendent of Schools Jacqui Clay, state Senator David Gowan, state Representative Gail Griffin, and state Representative Lupe Diaz to discuss how the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) affects local school districts in the county.

“All I wanted was to try to put a foundation down where we’re seeing what the other sees,” said Clay. “We’re building something, whereas before, we had nothing.”

Sen. Gowan, Rep. Diaz, and Rep. Griffin — are Republicans who represent Legislative District 19 — each voted against raising the aggregate expenditure limit back in February.

Even with their votes against it, the Arizona House and Senate passed the resolution to raise the Aggregate Expenditure Limit to $1,154,028,997.

Several of the local school superintendents shared how not raising the AEL would have a negative impact on their school districts.

“Bowie Unified School District’s budgetary reduction for Fiscal Year 2022 would have been $258,104, approximately 16.1% of the total budget to operate the district,” said Dan Erickson, superintendent of Bowie Unified School District in an email. “In order to reduce the budget by this amount the district would have had to eliminate the following essential positions for students: Reduce teaching staff from five teachers to two teachers. This would give us one teacher for grades K-4 and one teacher for grades 5-8.”

“Our high school would lose the CTE / Agriculture teacher and all classes would be online,” Erickson continued. “Reduce from two paraprofessional positions to one. This would mean the teachers in K-4 and 5-8 would have limited support for their classrooms. Reduce from two facilities team members to one for the entire district. Eliminate the Business Manager position.”

Tombstone Unified School District Superintendent Robert Devere said that if AEL isn’t raised again next year, the district would have to cut either 22.5% of their budget at the beginning of the year — entailing the loss of 12 teachers, six paraprofessionals, six office staff, five administrators/directors, six facility/maintenance technicians, six bus drivers, and all coaches and club sponsors — or cut $2,000,000 on March 1st.

“Due to the possible AEL mandated cuts, we are holding off purchasing a new bus knowing those funds can be used in the M&O areas after a budget revision,” said Devere in an email. “If we can't maintain our transportation capitalization, we will not be able to continue to service as many students who attend our district through open enrollment-parent choice. With the prospect of cuts looming, staff recruitment and retention is even more difficult.”

Kyle Hart, who’s the superintendent of four school districts — Valley Union High School District, Elfrida Elementary School District, Pearce Elementary School District, and St. David Unified School District — said that the potential financial loss to his districts if AEL isn’t raised ranges from $180,000-$760,000.

“The problem with waiting until the last minute to fix this situation (like was done in 2022) is that it causes stress to employees which hurts the overall school culture,” said Hart in an email. “When the school culture is not positive, the overall potential for student learning drops.”

While charter schools’ funding isn’t dictated or affected by AEL, Executive Director of the Center for Academic Success Vada Phelps said that she attended the meeting on Aug. 19 to support the public school districts that are directly affected by AEL.

“The students in Cochise County are not Sierra Vista’s, Benson’s, Bisbee’s, or Douglas’s, etc.,” Phelps said in an email. “They are our students and anything that affects them is our concern. I don’t understand if the funds are there and have been allocated – why can’t the schools spend them.”

Rep. Diaz says he voted against it because, “This spending limit is important, the voters — you know — put it in place and we can’t simply ignore it … Right now, the AEL goes beyond the constitutional cap and we’re about 1.3 billion above that limit now. That’s some serious money. The superintendents asked us to go ahead and change the law, and we can’t ignore the voters.”

“One of the other things too is that it was our part in the legislature, there was some frustration that it did not go through committee and it was not discussed with the caucus,” Diaz continued. “And so, no long-term solutions to the problems were ever addressed. That’s kinda the background to my “no” vote.”

Diaz said that raising state taxes is “out of the question.”

Most local superintendents mentioned that the meeting was positive and that they felt that their concerns were heard by the legislators, but all are calling for a permanent solution — namely eliminating AEL altogether.

“A long-term fix is needed which would be to change the constitution,” said Bisbee Unified School District Superintendent Tom Woody in an email. “I do believe the legislature understood that when they reauthorized the 301 funds and did not exempt them that exacerbated the problem and understood that this could be fixed by the legislature.”

Woody added that Bisbee Unified School District would be facing a cut of around $990,000 if the AEL isn’t raised this year.

“This law needs to be adapted or eliminated,” said Hart. “Once a budget is passed and districts plan accordingly, those funds should be available that entire fiscal year. One of the major issues with this AEL is that if not fixed, the cuts would have to be made mid-year. It would be bad enough if the AEL were to affect the following year's budget, but this would affect the current year as well as the following year. This law was made over 40 years ago. Education is much different with much more requirements today. “

“It would be a tremendous change for the students and teachers if we were not one of the lowest funded states in education,” said Erickson. “Even moving up to 40th in state [funding] would mean a [significant] change in teacher salary and give us the opportunity to recruit and retain the best of the best for our children.”

Sen. Gowan declined to be interviewed but said in an email that “We had some very productive conversations. We all want to figure out a long-term solution to the AEL, and the feedback from our local superintendents is important when navigating this issue. I look forward to keeping our dialogue open so that we can address any issues or concerns that arise as we evaluate our next steps.”

Diaz concluded, “We’ve got to either hold to the constitution or address it and see what needs to be done.”

The meeting on Aug. 19 was closed to the public. Clay said the reason behind that was to build trust between local superintendents and state legislators.

“It wasn’t that I was trying to hide anything, I’m trying to build a foundation of relationship between these two groups, and I didn’t think that people watching would help,” said Clay.

“This was our first time,” she continued. “You have to realize that the senator and representatives, they trusted me to build an environment where nobody would be pushed up against the ropes. And also the superintendents, they trusted me for the same thing. So, this was a very, very sensitive, high-risk, could be emotional-type thing and I was trying to find a balance.”

Clay said that she’s interested in having the meeting open to the public in the future.

Arizona Public Media reached out to Sierra Vista Unified School Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes for comment on the meeting but didn’t receive a response as of publication.

Superintendents from Benson, Willcox, and Douglas Unified School Districts did not attend the meeting.

Arizona Public Media reached out multiple times to Griffin for comment but did not receive a response as of publication. All three legislators — Gowan, Diaz, and Griffin — are up for re-election this November.

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