Lawmakers see promise in school chief’s plan, except the price tag

Kindergarten teacher Rachel Chunglo checks on three of her new students during the first day of the 2016-17 school year at Abia Judd Elementary School. One of Sen. Karen Fann’s bills this Legislation session calls for making kindergarten an official grade.

Photo by Les Stukenberg.

Kindergarten teacher Rachel Chunglo checks on three of her new students during the first day of the 2016-17 school year at Abia Judd Elementary School. One of Sen. Karen Fann’s bills this Legislation session calls for making kindergarten an official grade.

The Prescott region’s three state lawmakers are clear they admire State Schools Superintendent Diane Douglas’ diligence in seeking out educational priorities from local community leaders and educators.

But they argue the money she is seeking to improve education – $680 million – is simply more than state taxpayers can afford. They’re also not so certain that educational enhancement is all about dollars.

Sophomore Republican State Rep. Noel Campbell said he appreciates Douglas’ educational agenda and efforts, but admits he has “concerns with her funding plan as it gives $200 million to the schools with no accountability to the taxpayers.”

Campbell and his fellow Republican delegation members, freshman State Rep. David Stringer and State Sen. Karen Fann, all agree higher salaries to recruit and retain high caliber classroom teachers must be a top spending priority. Yet state funding formulas must also consider classroom supplies and materials, technology, building improvements and assurances to taxpayers that their investment equates to academic success stories.

Stringer, who will be serving on the House Education Committee, said he “is sympathetic” to many of Douglas’ proposals in her “AZ Kids Can’t Wait 2017” plan and hopes to see them seriously considered by all the powers that be, but those ideas must be balanced against available state dollars.

Douglas’ plan prioritizes six areas: $200 million for an increase to basic state aid; $140 million for 5 percent teacher salary increases; $20 million in increases for rural district transportation; $180 million to fund district capital equipment requests; and $100 million for school building maintenance. She, too, details initiatives aimed at literacy and gifted educational programs and community outreach efforts. The total equals $680 million.

“We want to make the best decisions … but there is not a whole lot of extra money this year,” Stringer said. “So we’re not going to be funding millions of dollars in education, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do some things.”

Stringer and his fellow local delegation legislators said there are some ideas that can be implemented at minimal cost, and others that may have to be phased in with the plan, sort of a road map to where the state wants to go with education in the next few years. Teacher salaries are certain to be a key focus as lawmakers and educators alike seem to be in agreement that the best results for students come from those who provide their day-to-day classroom instruction.

One thing Campbell and Stringer both endorse is looking at new ways to generate the revenue to meet some of Douglas’ priorities. They both are advocates of considering district efficiencies, including the privatization of non-essential school services, such as transportation, custodial and food services.

In the greater Prescott region, several districts contract for food and janitorial services, but still maintain their own fleet of school buses.

Fann said she applauds Douglas’ outreach to communities across the state that aided in the thought she put into this plan, one she said certainly offers clear guidelines on how to “improve our education system.”

Yet she, too, is concerned about how the state will finance them.

Though she concurs that teacher pay is a top priority, Fann said it might be that the Legislature agrees to cover the cost of an area with a lower dollar amount as they seek to phase in more costly factors of the plan, or reduce those budget amounts based on what is available.

“I think we do what we can do with what we have,” Fann said, noting that it might be the Legislature can come up with $20 million but not $200 million.

One of the bills Fann said she and some fellow senators intend to propose this session, with no dollar figure attached to it at this time, is making kindergarten an official grade with school boards establishing criteria for what is to be accomplished by those children. She said this effort could get started and be phased in as money becomes available.

“If we really expect our kids to be ready to tackle first grade, and to be able to read by third grade, we have to get a head start on kindergarten,” Fann said, noting more and more districts have implemented all-day programs.

“I think the No. 1 important thing is that we now have a plan,” Fann said.