Lawmakers, some reluctantly, take first steps to address school spending limit

With less than a month to go before schools are forced to cut $1.4 billion from their budgets, lawmakers took the first step towards addressing the problem on Tuesday — although some made sure to say they had reservations about doing so. 

“My top concerns (are) academic achievement, rigor in the classroom and preparedness for a higher education and career. Far too often, it seems like all the energy in education is in any and all areas except for those principles,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Beverly Pingerelli in explaining why she refused to vote for or against a measure that would allow lawmakers to lift the looming school spending limit. “My (vote) today is a way to move this resolution forward, signaling my general displeasure while acknowledging the reality that to not allow the AEL to be overridden means certain chaos.”

Pingerelli voted “present” on the measure, which passed 8-1-1.

Schools across Arizona are rapidly approaching a fiscal cliff, due, in part, to a record funding investment passed last year that threatens to put them in violation of a spending cap added to the state’s constitution by voters in 1980. If the legislature fails to override that cap, called the aggregate expenditure limit, by March 1, schools would be barred from spending any more money.

Practically speaking, that means schools would be forced to slash their budgets in the final two months of the school year, which would result in massive layoffs and even closures. 

Lawmakers have overridden the cap three times before: in 2002, 2008 and 2022. But this year, a more conservative Republican majority is fielding greater hesitance from some members who feel schools should be subject to increased transparency and accountability in exchange for being allowed to spend the money they’ve been given, amid concerns about social agendas in schools. 

“We need to have checks and balances to make sure that the money is spent how we see fit,” said conservative activist Jeff Caldwell, who urged lawmakers on the House Education panel to vote against the bill. “If we don’t put in accountability measures, school districts could put the money towards…social and emotional learning projects or critical race theory projects.” 

While some members echoed those worries in their final remarks, Rep. David Cook, who introduced House Concurrent Resolution 2001 to override the spending limit, sharply dismissed them.

“There are local elected school district bodies that approve an annual budget presented to that governing body every year,” he rebutted. “That is accountability.” 

The spending cap is a pressing concern for the Globe Republican, who represents a legislative district that includes 62 public school districts — and limited other options for students if they’re forced to close their doors in March. Charter schools, which are not subject to the spending limit, are scarce in the area and wouldn’t be able to handle the same capacity.

“Ninety percent of students attend public schools in my district,” he told colleagues on the committee.

School leaders: refusing to lift the cap will hurt schools, students

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne warned lawmakers that allowing the spending cap to go into effect would have devastating consequences for schools across the state, and imperil any progress in academic performance he plans to oversee. 

Forcing schools to slash 17% of their annual budgets at the end of the academic year amounts to cutting as much as 70% of planned expenses. A cut of that magnitude, Horne said, would inevitably result in furloughs and firings. 

“At least two-thirds of teachers would have to be laid off,” he said. “The one-third left wouldn’t be able to help the students that were there.” 

Horne added that he was in favor of the accountability measures Republican lawmakers are clamoring for, but forcing schools to shut down would preempt any action he could take to implement those measures. The newly elected Republican campaigned on a promise to eliminate critical race theory and the social and emotional learning priorities championed by his Democratic predecessor. 

“I’m offering that accountability, but if this catastrophe hits our schools, it’ll throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing,” he said.

Yavapai County Superintendent Tim Carter told lawmakers that he has little choice but to pull back the funding if the legislature doesn’t act — even if schools don’t use any state money. Some districts, like Prescott Unified and Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District, get all of their funding from local property taxes, but the law doesn’t exempt them from being forced to cut a share of their budgets — nor does it explain how to return that funding, which wasn’t provided by the state. 

Carter noted that shutting down schools would only exacerbate the state’s current teacher shortage. A report from the Arizona Personnel Adminstrator’s Association from September 2022 estimated that as much as one-third of teaching positions across the state were vacant.

“There’s going to be lawsuits,” he warned. “And the reality is that, if I’m a teacher or administrator in Arizona, and this actually happens — do you really think I’m going to be a teacher here next year?”

Michael Wright, the superintendent for Blue Ridge Unified School District in Lakeside, implored lawmakers not to forget that students stand to lose the most, especially in rural districts like his that will be disproportionately shut down, compared to larger districts which may weather the budget cuts better. 

“Our schools in rural Arizona are the heartbeat of our community. Without them, 275 people don’t have jobs, 1,775 students don’t have a school to go to. That’s the state of Blue Ridge,” Wright said, his voice quavering. “All of these schools will suffer, and the kids will suffer the most.” 

GOP lawmakers approve, but end with calls for transparency

The bill was overwhelmingly passed out of the committee, though many Republicans groused about feeling obligated to do so.

The lone vote against the measure came from Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, who cited so-called “critical race theory” lessons as the reasoning behind his vote. He noted, however, that he was in support of lifting the limit and would like to see a more permanent solution so that the legislature doesn’t have to override it year after year. 

That can only be done if lawmakers give voters the chance to amend the state constitution to either permanently raise the cap or eliminate it altogether.

“There are problems, I know that there are problems. I hear the deep concerns that are there,” Diaz said. 

Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler, voted to approve the bill, but said she opposed giving money to schools when their test scores are so low. Arizona students performed at or near the national average in math and reading in 2022.

“We have this accountability issue and we keep trying to throw more and more money at this problem,” she said. “I want to see Arizona be number one in education, but we’ve got a long way to get there. I hope that there’s great accountability and great transparency in our spending and we spend it well.”

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