New Students

Students and parents at Sechrist Elementary school on the first day of the new school year in this August 2015 file photo.

Members of the 110th Arizona Town Hall are recommending that the state spend around $900 million more a year to raise teacher pay by an average of $15,000 in order to recruit and keep teachers.

The organization released a list of recommendations after an intensive four-day town hall last week. Those recommendations include

--increasing teacher pay

--restoring funding for school building repairs and new construction

-- finding new revenue streams for education

-- making sure that those revenues cannot be diverted by the state.

According to the Town Hall report, it could cost the state more than $3 billion to implement all of the recommendations.

Paul Kulpinski, from LAUNCH Flagstaff, and Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Risha VanderWey were among local attendees.

According to its website, Arizona Town Hall is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization created in 1962. Each year, the organization’s members pick one topic of concern in the state, such as water, the economy, energy and education. The organization invites people from around the state, including local government and business leaders, as well as members of the public to participate in a statewide Town Hall meeting where the group comes up with possible solutions to the problems.

“It’s a wonderful process,” Kulpinski said, adding that each day was long and exhausting, with some days starting at 7 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m.

Kulpinski said he was on one of four panels that worked for two and a half days on identifying problems with school funding in the state and possible solutions. Each panel had 14 questions to discuss, seven on Monday and seven Tuesday. On Wednesday, the last day of the event, the entire group of about 100 people met to draft a report and recommendations to share with the public. The list of recommendations and a report on school funding can be found at the Arizona Town Hall website.

Kulpinski said it was enlightening to see that other communities around the state were facing some of the same problems as Flagstaff. He said that, unlike the current national political climate, his panel had a lot agreement when it came to what was wrong with the system and a lot of respect for different ideas on how to solve the problem.

There was a strong desire in the final report to create a thoughtful and intentional way to communicate to the public and the state government the need for for education funding in the state, he said. However, the report is just a framework -- the public, businesses and government leaders have to push for action in order to make the necessary changes.

Kulpinski said Arizona’s teacher shortage and teacher pay were two subjects that came up frequently in discussions around the room. The Town Hall report calls Arizona’s teacher shortage a “crisis.”

The report states that low teacher pay affects teacher recruitment and retention. Spending about $900 million would raise average teacher pay in Arizona to at least the national average. It also suggests giving teachers more autonomy and support in the classroom, more mentors for new teachers and more teacher’s aides.

Kulpinski said another point that seemed to come up again and again in each panel was the inequity of the funding system between mainstream public school districts and charters.

For example, the state now divvies out funding to schools based on the number of students who are in class each day. Previously, funding was based on the number of students who attended the school or district in the previous year. The new formula makes it hard for district schools to budget for the entire school year because the funding they get is now linked with how many students attend classes each month. Charter schools can limit how many students they can take in a year, so they have a better idea of how many they will have each month.

The education funding system also has drawbacks for charter schools because charters cannot use bonds or overrides to raise additional money through property taxes like district schools can, Kulpinski said. The amount of property taxes that can be raised by district schools also varies from place to place because property values vary from place to place. This means that wealthier areas like Flagstaff can raise more money from overrides than rural areas where property values aren’t as high. Wealthier areas also tend to collect more money in tax credits from families who are interested in supporting their child’s school or district.

Schools are also rewarded with additional funding for performing well on the state’s AzMERIT assessment tests. According to the draft report from Arizona Town Hall, this can deprive schools of the additional funding they need in order to improve.

Members of the Arizona Town Hall recommended doing away with the current year funding formula and going back to the formula that based funding on the number of students who attended school in the previous year. It also recommended a universal state property tax rate for education that would even out the differences in funding between districts and between districts and charters.

The effect of school choice and private school vouchers was also a topic that came up, Kulpinski said.

“It’s not so much about a parent’s choice as to which school they send their child to as it is which students a school wants to accept,” he said. Schools are starting to view students as products, rather than individuals.

Even though public charter schools are required to take in any student that comes to them, they can limit the number of students they can accept in a year based on their size. Most charter schools use a lottery system when there are more applicants than classroom spots. However, according to the Town Hall report, student swho have more resources to begin with are more likely to have the means and resources to get into a charter school or pay the costs for a private school that are not covered by a voucher. And in some rural areas students don’t have a choice of schools, because there is no alternative to the local district schools.

“School choice tends to concentrate the highest-need and highest-cost students in schools with the lowest levels of state funding, while the highest-performing students are concentrated in other schools that tend to have higher levels of state funding, as well as access to other resources,” the report states.

Kulpinski also said that there is a rising awareness among businesses looking to move to Arizona that the state does not invest in its education system. Tax cuts to entice businesses to the state are no longer enough, he said. Businesses want an educated workforce that has the skills a business needs to succeed.

Kulpinski said the Town Hall estimated that the cost to implement all of the recommendations in the report would be more than $3 billion to start and around $2 billion annually to sustain, not including annual increases for inflation. The state government currently spends about $4.3 billion a year on public schools, with local property taxpayers chipping in for budget overrides and capital bonds.

The report recommended raising teacher salaries by renewing the Proposition 301 sales tax and increasing it from 0.6 percent to at least 1 percent. Most of the money from Prop. 301 goes to teacher salaries and the state would lose about $600 million annually after 2021 if the proposition is not renewed by voters.

The report also recommended renewing Proposition 123, which was approved by voters in 2016 and is due to expire in 2025. Prop. 123 increased the amount of money distributed to schools from the state’s Land Trust Fund from 2.5 percent to 6.9 percent annually, or an added $325 million a year.

The report also recommends closing loopholes in the corporate income tax system, creating a statewide property tax, creating a sales tax on energy that is sold out of state and on tourism and entertainment activities. The state’s tax credit system that funds extracurricular activities at public schools and scholarships to private schools also needs to be reconsidered.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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