PRESCOTT - Despite differences on other issues, public comments carried a common pleading for more school funding Thursday night, June 11, at state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas' "We Are Listening" tour stop at Prescott High School.
The meeting was Douglas' 11th stop in visits across the state. The schedule wraps up with three more stops in Flagstaff, Window Rock and Springerville.
State Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott and state Associate Superintendent Leila Williams joined Douglas on the panel to hear public comments on a broad range of issues affecting K-12 education in Arizona.
Panelists did not respond to specific comments, other than one response from Campbell about the reduction in funding to joint technological education districts (JTEDs) in the latest state budget.
He said he would support efforts to bring funding back to JTEDs.
Campbell added a promise: "We (legislators) will not be railroaded and bamboozled into a budget process like we were last time."
"The need for more funding for education has been well-stated and well-understood and well-publicized here in the state," said the night's first speaker, Michael Ellegood. "We know we're 50th in the nation as far as funding. We know our teachers are the lowest paid."
Directing his comments to Douglas, he added, "We expect you to use your bully pulpit and your access to the governor and Legislature to increase funding for public schools."
Like many who followed him, he described how poor funding for public education had ripple effects through the economy, such as the inability to recruit doctors, lawyers, engineers and other skilled professionals after potential hires learn of the state's education rankings.
Among the night's final speakers, Kevin Dickerson, chief financial officer at PUSD, spoke of his personal experience working at a charter school and seeing the funding disparities that exist between the traditional public schools and charters. "I learned that the charter school chain I worked for was a business, and that business learned how to manipulate the system," Dickerson said.
He described disparities in funding formulas and standards that allowed charter schools to receive funds that aren't available to similarly situated traditional public schools.
Dickerson also relayed the depth of cuts at Prescott public schools over the last year, starting with the loss of $2.1 million in maintenance and operations funding that led to the closure of two elementary schools, a districtwide restructuring and the elimination of 47 jobs.
He added that teachers at PUSD have seen one 3 percent raise in eight years, and they won't be getting a raise in 2015-16.
Amanda Chartier, who will begin her 28th year as a teacher in the fall at Prescott High School, explained that due to the lack of raises, she works three jobs to make ends meet.
"The district pays me like I'm in my seventh year of teaching," she said, explaining that she is passionate about teaching, which is enough to keep her in the profession, despite the low salary.
She also conveyed her daughter's experience as a Prescott High School student, who walks around strategically placed garbage cans in hallways and classrooms that catch water during heavy rainfalls.
Despite the challenges, she said, "We do amazing things."
One of the issues at the forefront of Douglas' election campaign in 2014 brought supporters and opponents of Common Core, or as it's known in Arizona, College and Career Readiness Standards.
While teachers were split on their position for or against Common Core, parents who spoke seemed more decidedly against it.
Mardi Read, who will become PUSD's assistant superintendent in July, suggested the answer is not to scrap the standards completely. "I have not seen better standards out there," she said, while agreeing there's room to improve.
She offered a more measured approach that modifies the standards to fix areas of concern, but doesn't invalidate the years of work by educators and administrators to implement Common Core.
Coming from outside the area, Mitra Khazai, a governing board member in Madison Elementary School District in central Phoenix, described the improvement she's seen in her school as the new standards went into effect.
"I've seen with the implementation of Common Core standards some real improvement with my child's academic achievement," she said, echoing Reed's suggestion to move forward, not backward.
However, critics of the standards decried it as a federal overreach into local education that tied the hands of local educators and lowered the bar for student achievement.
After the meeting, Douglas said public comments at other meetings around the state reiterated concerns about funding and teacher retention. She also saw similar splits on the Common Core issue, though she said she sides with parents who called for the repeal of Common Core.
"I think we heard more about charter schools here than we did at other tour sites," she said.
Douglas also recognized some of the issues that impact rural schools, like the cost of public transportation or higher percentages of free and reduced lunches - issues that impact school budgets but aren't always represented in school funding formulas.
Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9503.
Douglas said she'll follow up the round of statewide meetings with a "We Heard You" series of presentations in the fall, and added her intentions to continue with annual meetings across the state as long as she remains in office.