School leaders: Ducey needs to call a special session to lift the school spending cap

If it doesn’t happen before March, schools will face $1.4 billion in mid-year budget cuts

By: - November 29, 2022 4:03 pm

Public school teachers and children rally at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 21, 2022, to call on the legislature to lift a constitutional spending cap that will force schools to cut nearly $1.2 billion before the school year ends. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror

More than 50 school boards are calling on Gov. Doug Ducey to take action to head off a funding cliff that would force public schools to cut $1.4 billion from their budgets in the middle of the school year, resulting in widespread layoffs and closures.  

“We’re asking the current legislators and Gov. Ducey — the ‘education governor’ —  to do the right thing,” said Monica Timberlake, president of the Quartzsite Elementary School District governing board. “This used to be just a matter of housekeeping, now it’s become a weapon. A weapon that hurts our students and families. A weapon that hurts the communities that you were elected to represent.”

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She joined other public school officials at the state Capitol on Tuesday to demand action, saying the impact of the spending limit has worsened over time. Refusing to act would mean Quartzsite Elementary alone would lose as much as $309,000. While that sum is less striking than the millions larger school districts like those in Phoenix would lose, the impact would be catastrophic, Timberlake said.

At issue is a school spending limit in the state constitution. Passed by voters in 1980, the “aggregate expenditure limit” caps how much public schools can spend based on attendance and inflation rates. But it doesn’t take into account the increased costs that didn’t exist when the law was first enacted, like technology. 

A record budget allocation approved by the state legislature earlier this year puts schools over that limit, and if the cap isn’t raised by March 1, Arizona schools would have to cut nearly $1.4 billion. 

The cap can only be waived by a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature. Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, has stated that she successfully clinched that support in October and presented proof to Ducey, who has the power to convene a special legislative session to gather state lawmakers back to the Capitol to vote on the matter. 

Udall is one of several Republican legislators who won’t be returning to the Capitol in January, when the annual legislative session begins. She and others are hoping Ducey — who is also leaving office in January — will call a lame-duck special session to tackle the issue before the next legislature begins its work.

CJ Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesman, said the governor is currently in talks with legislative leaders about confirming the viability of a special session. Doing so in October, while legislators were in the middle of campaigns, would have been a nonstarter, Karamargin said. 

There’s no wiggle room for rural schools like those in Quartzsite to trim extracurriculars like art or music when dollars are short, Timberlake said, because those programs don’t exist. Quartzsite Elementary School has 10 teachers — one for each grade from kindergarten through eighth — so firing staff and consolidating classes wouldn’t work, either. The only option would be to furlough staff and shut down school early, and the dearth of other schools in the area means kids seeking an education would be left in the lurch. 

“My community has one private school. They have a maximum enrollment of 25 – where are my 150 kids going to go?” Timberlake asked. 

Gilbert Unified School District faces more than $48 million in cuts if the expenditure limit isn’t lifted. Jill Humpherys, one of the district’s governing board members, said that even a cut of $10 million dollars would require the district to increase class sizes to 47 students, resulting in a violation of fire codes. If $20 million had to be cut, the district would be forced to eliminate district office functions, including the district’s transportation apparatus, she said. 

Not only are those prospects daunting, Humpherys said, they’re also time-consuming to consider. While the legislature has until March 1st to vote, school boards must begin putting together plans to deal with the spending limit months in advance — time that could be better spent improving schools for students. 

“As a board member, I want to work with my fellow board members providing students a high quality education and increasing student achievement. I do not want to spend the next few months discussing how to cut $48.5 million from our Gilbert Public Schools District budget,” she said. 

This is the second consecutive school year that schools have stared down massive budget cuts if legislators failed to lift the spending cap. Earlier this year, lawmakers lifted the limit to avoid $1.2 billion in mid-year cuts for schools.

Humpherys said lawmakers have to not just lift the cap for this fiscal year, but craft a permanent solution that avoids the yearly need for legislative action simply so schools can spend the money they’ve been given. That would require sending voters a constitutional amendment to change how the limit functions — or remove it entirely. 

The déjà vu is irritating for Steven Chapman, a board member for Tolleson Union High School District, which stands to lose more than $21 million this school year. 

“We should be focused on hiring the best teachers and providing the best extracurricular activities to our students,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to come down here every session and beg for them to allow us to spend the money that they’re already going to give us.”

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. Prior to that, she wrote for the Mirror as the UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She has written for the Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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