A town hall meeting on education funding turned nasty Friday afternoon as one of the state lawmakers on the panel lost her patience with hecklers in the audience.
More than 100 people filed into the Cline Library Assembly Hall at Northern Arizona University Friday for a town hall meeting with state Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, state Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, and Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Barbara Hickman.
The Flagstaff Education Association hosted the meeting so local residents could discuss Arizona’s FY2016 budget, which includes deep cuts to higher education funding — $17.3 million at NAU alone. It also kept rural community college funding flat and increased K-12 funding for inflation and enrollment growth but also cut other types of school funds, including $1.3 million in district additional assistance at FUSD.
Allen and Thorpe characterized the cuts as an unfortunate but necessary way to fix Arizona’s structural deficit during a series of questions posed by moderator and Flagstaff High School science teacher Jeff Taylor, who was named the Arizona Education Foundation's Ambassador for Excellence for 2015.
“(Of) the $9 billion budget that the Legislature has to work with, approximately 52 percent of that goes to education,” said Thorpe, who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “I wish we had more money to work with but those are the constraints that we’re dealing with.”
Hickman, on the other hand, got thunderous applause by challenging that stance.
“I am troubled, however, when we have conversations about revenue with a governor that, quite frankly, at the very first moment of his election said, ‘I will not raise any taxes,'" Hickman said. "I don’t know how we raise revenue (without raising taxes).”
The crowd also responded positively when she said multiple choice standardized tests are not the best way to prepare students for success, particularly in STEM subjects.
THINLY VEILED CRITICISMS
Audience members were invited to ask the panel members questions during the second half of the meeting. The questions came from teachers, NAU students and faculty, high school students, parents and other Flagstaff residents.
But many of those questions were actually thinly veiled criticisms of Thorpe and Allen’s well-documented opposition to raising corporate taxes. At times, audience members shouted “raise taxes” and snickered or groaned at Thorpe and Allen’s claims that lower taxes would fix Arizona’s economic woes by attracting businesses.
So when an FUSD parent walked up to the microphone, decried how college tuition rates in Arizona have increased 80 percent in the past five years, and criticized Thorpe and Allen for providing tax cuts to corporations, Allen snapped.
“You’re asking me, sir, because I have the power to go after other people’s money,” Allen said. “You want me to go after other people’s money because you think it justifies (it) because we’re going to give it to kids for their education. It would have to be done very carefully because, you know, go look up socialist countries.”
The crowd gasped but Allen was not finished.
“Oh yeah?” she said, challenging the audience. “You can’t be polite about what I say but I have to be polite about what you say. You’re all here to beat us up because you’re upset that we just don’t raise taxes.”
Allen also took a few jabs at NAU and the Arizona Board of Regents by telling students they should ask NAU administrators where they are spending money. At one point, she implied NAU spends its funds on cars and credit cards.
TAX THE FEDS
Meanwhile, Thorpe said he would encourage Governor Doug Ducey to put additional money into education if Arizona exceeds its revenue projections in the future. He also suggested the state could fix part of its budget shortfall by charging the federal government higher property taxes for federally owned land.
There were a few times when there appeared to be some room for the two sides to come together. Allen said several times that if someone were to draw up a plan showing exactly how much education funding they wanted the state to provide and how much they wanted taxes to increase to meet that funding goal, she would bring it to the Legislature.
One FUSD parent suggested that Arizona should spend $14,000 per student at the K-12 level. According to the Arizona State Auditor General’s report, Arizona spent just $7,578 per student during 2013-14.
Thorpe responded by saying that would cost the state $14.1 billion.
“What we’re talking about is $10 billion that the legislature currently doesn’t have if we wanted to fund education at $14,000 per student,” Thorpe said. “Those are the challenges that we have.”