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10:36 AM Sat, Nov. 17th

Tough choices coming for PUSD budget session

From left: Prescott High School senior board representative Alexa Rosdahl, Prescott Mayor Greg Mengarelli and Prescott Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Brian Moore talk during retreat Friday, March 2, 2018. (Nanci Hutson/Courier)

From left: Prescott High School senior board representative Alexa Rosdahl, Prescott Mayor Greg Mengarelli and Prescott Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Brian Moore talk during retreat Friday, March 2, 2018. (Nanci Hutson/Courier)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story in a series of PUSD retreat topics in coming editions of The Daily Courier.

In a state where public education funding is always in dispute, the process of school district leaders putting together budget packages to reflect all the needs of students, staff and taxpayers is tricky.

Prescott Unified School District is no exception.

On Friday, the PUSD Governing Board spent six hours in a retreat, with one of the key topics the funding priorities for the 2018-19 school year with an existing maintenance and operations budget of $23.8 million.

Superintendent Joe Howard and Chief Financial Officer Brian Moore unveiled a proposed package that for the first time in a decade does not begin with cutting back staff and programs. Student enrollment for the prior year reflected a slight increase that is expected to remain flat in the coming year: just over 3,800 students.

The proposed budget rather reflects anticipated increases of about $681,000 for existing services, including medical insurance hikes, and the district’s commitment to retaining high-caliber staff at every level. The goal is a 5 percent salary hike to all PUSD employees, a combination between district and state dollars. Gov. Ducey has promised to give all teachers in the state a two-percent increase; PUSD leaders want that to apply to all staff in addition to a three-percent all-staff increase.

The only positions where increases might vary somewhat would be those where minimum wage increases create inequities based on job descriptions.

The message Howard wants to send to district employees is that “the most important thing we can do for kids is to keep you in front of them.”

The Arizona School Spending Report released from the state Office of the Auditor General on March 1 indicates the average length of stay for a teacher in Prescott is now 10.1 years; the peer and state average is 11.3. The average teacher salary is $42,546 with $5,211 the average Proposition 301 contribution; the peer average is $46,837 salary and $6,016 301 compensation and the state average is $48,372 with $5,840 301 compensation.

The report also shows that PUSD’s investment in classroom instruction, student support and instructional support totals just under 68 percent of its budget, about average for the state. Administration is 9.6 percent; the average is 10. 4 percent statewide.

Director of Professional Development Kelli Bradstreet said this district places an emphasis on giving teachers what they need to succeed. From the Proposition 301 funds, the district for the last few years has spent about 200,000 each year for four instructional coaches in its six schools. The district, too, offers ongoing professional development, class sizes from low to mid-20s, and a variety of appreciation events, including grants from the PUSD Education Foundation, to thank teachers for their vision and commitment, she said.

PUSD is diligent in its efforts to empower teachers to be leaders “and give them a voice,” she said.

Granite Mountain Principal Teresa Bruso said two years ago the district had 50 teacher vacancies; last year that number was just 24.

“The most important thing we can do is hang on to these folks,” Howard said. “If they see our bold perspective, and support, that pays dividends,” Howard said.

But Howard said he, too, hears the cries of parents, students, teachers and community members about the need for more mental health resources to keep children safe and secure in their schools.

So this budget comes in with the anticipation of hiring a full-time school resource officer at the high school. The dollar amount has yet to be determined. The district hopes to divide the cost with the city.

What this budget does not include yet is additional mental health and counseling staff.

Board member Maureen Erickson, with the echoes of others, said the district needs to be “proactive” when it comes to providing for students’ mental health support. It must strike a balance between increased salaries and the addition of new positions to help manage mental health issues, they said.

Taylor Hicks Principal Kelsey Secor and her colleagues agree.

What she said she would not want to see is the district forced to sacrifice veteran teachers because the community is now so worried about children’s security in schools. She believes money for mental health supports will be found. She and others said the state Legislature may even approve some extra funds to help local districts with these additions.

To replace a beloved teacher who departs because he or she cannot afford to live in Prescott would be much harder to do, Secor said.

“Our classroom teachers make the biggest impact,” she concluded.

The board is slated to debate and vote on the budget at its April 3 meeting.

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.