Education advocates hold a sign during a press conference Sept. 15 as Democratic Rep. Reginald Bolding, at the podium, calls out Republicans for failing to call a special session to lift the school Aggregate Expenditure Limit. Photo by Caitlin Sievers | Arizona Mirror
Democrats and public education advocates are urging Gov. Doug Ducey and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature to keep their promise to lift the state’s annual school spending cap.
Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature together passed a budget in June that dedicated more than $600 million to new, permanent funding for K-12 education. However, if two-thirds of the legislature doesn’t vote to lift the state’s Aggregate Expenditure Limit, or AEL, districts across the state won’t be able to spend around $1.3 billion already allocated to them.
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Many Democrats in the Legislature say they only voted in favor of the budget because Ducey and the Republican legislators promised they would later call a special session to lift the limit.
If Democrats can prove they have the votes to override the AEL, Ducey will call a special session, said C.J. Karamargin, communications director for the governor’s office.
“What is the point of giving our public schools money but not allowing them to spend it?” asked Sen. Christine Marsh during a press conference Thursday. “It’s a betrayal of our students and our schools. It’s also a betrayal of the legislators who voted for a less-than-ideal budget under the promise that there would be a special session to address the AEL.”
Voters added the AEL to the Arizona Constitution in 1980. It implemented a shared monetary limit based on the spending and enrollment at all public school districts in the state, according to the Arizona Education Association. Once districts reach their shared limit, they can do no more spending in that fiscal year.
Advocates pointed out on Thursday that the AEL predates laws requiring sometimes costly accommodations for special education students as well as expensive technology that is now used in many classrooms.
A small group of legislators and education advocates gathered for the press conference on the state Capitol grounds in Phoenix on Thursday morning to call out Ducey and legislative Republicans for their failure to schedule a special session.
If the AEL isn’t lifted for 2023, school funding will drop off April 1 and districts will be unable to spend more than $1 billion in money they were given.
According to Marsh, who is a teacher at Scottsdale Unified School District, her district stands to lose around $28.4 million if the limit isn’t lifted. Chandler Unified School District stands to lose $62.4 million, Phoenix Union High School District would lose $52.6 million and Tucson Unified School District would lose $66.1 million
“This comes down to kids, and they deserve to know that their state cares about their education,” Marsh said. “And right now, they don’t know this.”
Failure to lift the limit will result in teacher layoffs, larger classroom sizes and poor learning outcomes, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said during the press conference.
Sierra Vista Unified School District, located southeast of Tucson, would have to reduce its average teacher salary from $50,000 to $35,200 if the limit stays in place, Hoffman said.
“How are schools supposed to obtain highly qualified teachers for only $35,000 a year?” Hoffman said.
The spending cap might also mean fewer paraprofessionals to assist special education students, and fewer counselors, behavioral coaches and school nurses, she said.
Democrats said they agreed to approve the state budget in June without addressing the AEL as a concession to Republicans who wanted to wait for a judgment in a court case challenging Proposition 208, also known as the Invest in Education Act. The voter-approved measure would have provided millions in funding for schools through a 3.5% surcharge on all income greater than $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for joint filers.
But the judgment calling the act unconstitutional and the following appeal period are now long passed, and Democrats say it’s time for Ducey to call the promised special session.
Democrats are confident that, if Ducey does call for a special session, they have the votes to lift the spending limit. The state education budget passed in June with 48 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate, more than the votes needed to lift the limit, said House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding.
But Karamargin countered that Democrats haven’t supplied the governor with a list of Legislators who are on board.
“We’ll consider it as we said we would,” he said.
Those who supported that budget should support lifting the limit so that money can be spent, Bolding said on Thursday. He believes that anyone who changes their vote was playing political games or being dishonest.
Karamargin believes Bolding was making assumptions when he said that those who voted for the budget should support lifting the AEL.
The Legislature voted in February to lift the AEL for the 2022 fiscal year, which ended June 30. The proposed vote would be to lift it for 2023.
***This story has been updated to include comments from the governor’s office.
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