Arizona State Education Budget Storm Looms for 2009

Gayle Plato-Besley, M. Ed.

With alarming news coming from the state legislature about potentially drastic budget cuts, local media and state educators are scrambling to either explain or blame current politicians, outgoing Governor Napolitano, or the economic downturn in general.  Little discussion exists as to what to do about the reality. 

Scottsdale Unified School District‘s Sherry Celaya, Director of Finance, handles daily workings of district-wide budgeting.  She summed up the reality facing many school districts in her response to Sonoran Alliance about pending budget woes: 

 “If SUSD loses full day kindergarten funding we will lose 51 teaching positions.  This will take effect immediately at the start of the 2009-10 school year. The only way we could continue to accommodate full day kindergarten is through our K-3 Override.  Moving full day kindergarten to the K-3 Override will negatively impact the current class size ratios in grades K-3.”


Arizona‘s budget/financial crisis is no surprise with national economic depression looming.  Yet, dire projected business failures, rising unemployment, and overall tax base decline for future state revenue makes this financial implosion a fiscal F5 tornado.

Ms. Celaya of SUSD, voiced a concern all educators face; districts statewide are going to face cuts, shufflings of staff, and potential class size increases.  Staff cuts seem inevitable.  As many teachers in Arizona are members of the Arizona Education Association, they may look to the AEA for guidance in this difficult time. AEA has members on the coalition noted in this article. 

The home page of the AEA has an enlightening comment from their president, John Wright:

Arizona’s leaders are willing to shoulder the burden of their own financial mismanagement over the years on the backs of our students.  This kind of false solution is worse than shortsightedness; it borders on malice.  The decision to keep Arizona at the bottom of education funding continues to be a deliberate one.”

Can the AEA face the reality that every other leader of industry faces today?  Or, are teacher unions truly hurting it’s members by the teeth gnashing, partisan pack-like behavior?   The storm is coming and the best thing to be done is to jump in and help steer the ship out of the worst chop.

Blame may be the choice for the moment, but united action and review of policy will be necessary.  The Arizona Business and Education Coalition (ABEC), started in 2002, is designed to review exactly how organized discussion and partnership could offer effective change to meet the needs of schools.  For years, this group has advocated for better funding and promoted a joint effort:
“Policy makers, educators, citizens, and business leaders must hold each other jointly accountable for improvements in the financial and academic condition of our schools by working proactively to create long-term funding that supports long-term investment in
Arizona and its future. ” (ABEC,

This reality of the budget is painful for any educator. Administrators will eat this and many a superintendent will be thrown overboard once cuts come down. The formula for raising money in the state may be outmoded too as the Average Daily Membership (ADM) funding marked by the 100th day attendance report for each district is the foundation for funding.

“The 27-year-old school funding formula couldn’t have foreseen the challenges we face today.  It’s time to take another look.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a solid funding structure in place that would meet the needs of 21st Century learning?” –Susan Carlson of ABEC Blog (

Yet, the message beat home by all who advocated for the current plan is that more is better, and students benefit as state funding increases. But that’s not necessarily true.  According to the State of Arizona office of the Auditor General, there has been a steady decrease in classroom dollars by school districts statewide.  Even though there has been a significant infusion of state-provided funds for classrooms, over half of the districts provided less classroom dollars per student in 2007 than they did in 2006. The report from February 2008 stated the following:

 ” Within Arizona, higher per-pupil spending does not equate to higher classroom dollar percentages. Although these (larger) districts have more resources available to spend per pupil, on average, they put a smaller proportion of each dollar in the classroom. As a result, districts with the highest per-pupil spending, on average, have lower classroom dollar percentages.”


Proposition 301 is an example of voter mandate to fund classrooms, and increase teacher salaries.  Yet, according to the report, the majority of it has been used on salary increases and somewhat nebulous practices. The report also noted irregularities and misappropriation over the last few years.   The accountability and overseeing of districts’ usage of the funds is in question according to the Auditor General. 

Could Proposition 301 monies, or an Arizona Lottery revamp be utilized? A lottery is always a voluntary tax and generates funds even in recession.   Does the legislature have the right to freeze all 301 funds and re-direct the money to help the state weather the storm?  Could all school lunch and breakfast prices double for regular education students not considered free or reduced?   Could all school districts close down operations from late June to late July to shrink operation costs; follow up with a  cut all in administrative salaries by one month of pay? Could all school counseling and health/nursing services be contracted out with private agencies?

The ABEC offered a paper on school finance reform and quoted a well-known state expert regarding school budgets.  Alan Maguire helped create the current laws and financial model.  His recommendation follows:

ABEC School Finance Reform

1) Understand “what is”: conduct an accurate,
thorough examination of current actual spending
levels and practices
2) Consider “what ought to be”: determine what the
“right” level should be to support achievement
3) Develop a tax proposal
4) Develop the mathematical allocation process

 Coalitions, think tanks, and parents with good ideas could help, flooding the state legislators in a massive brainstorm.  Maybe there is a need for districts to work the problem and freeze all committee discussion of any future programming.  Everything discussed in each meeting is about the budget only; nothing else matters if kids truly do come first.


Gayle Plato-Besley is a certified social studies teacher, and counselor with over 20 years experience working with children and families. Her experience includes work as a school counselor in Arizona and Washington school districts, private practice, and a secondary level teacher of U.S. Government, Economics, and History. She works as a freelance writer on topics of education, politics, and social commentary. (



  1. I never had kindergarten available to me and I was an ESL student when I arrived in first grade. I have 4 post-high school degrees.


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