Schools dodge massive spending cuts as Senate raises public school spending cap for this year

By Jeremy Duda and Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — The Arizona Senate voted to raise the aggregate expenditure limit for K-12 schools, heading off a school funding crisis and allowing schools to use nearly nearly $1.2 billion that would have otherwise gone to waste.

With a week to go before a March 1 deadline set in the Arizona Constitution, the Senate on Monday voted 23-6 for a one-year exemption to the limit. The state House of Representatives passed the legislation on Feb. 15, but the measure initially stalled in the Senate after it came up one Republican vote short.

The protracted fight over the aggregate expenditure limit has been a source of anxiety for public schools, which were unsure whether they’d have access to their full budgets for the last part of the academic year. Though school districts wouldn’t have to start implementing spending cuts until April 1, the statutory deadline for them to complete their revised budgets, some might have begun phasing them in after March 1 in anticipation of the coming shortfall.

Some Republicans were wary of raising the spending cap over concerns that doing so would throw a lifeline to Proposition 208, an income tax hike on high earners that voters approved in 2020. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the revenue from Prop. 208 counted toward the spending limit and that the tax increase was illegal if it exceeded the cap. But the justices kicked the case back down to the trial court to determine whether the projected revenue would do so, and Republican legislators have accused the judge of dragging his feet.

Both sides in the litigation have stipulated that even if Prop. 208 were to go into effect, no revenue from the tax hike would be raised or spent during the current fiscal year. Nonetheless, some Republicans worried that raising the limit would give pro-Prop. 208 forces an argument that the tax hike isn’t unconstitutional because lawmakers can suspend the cap anytime they want.

Voters in 1980 approved an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that created a formula-based ceiling on K-12 spending known as the aggregate expenditure limit, or AEL. The legislature has the power to approve one-year suspensions of that limit with a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Due to a combination of increased K-12 funding and the expiration of a law that exempted about $600 million per year from the cap, schools are on pace to dramatically exceed that limit in the 2021-22 school year.

Because the school year would be roughly three-quarters over when the cuts are scheduled to go into effect, many school districts have said the impact would be massive — and could force teacher layoffs and school shut-downs.

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said raising the expenditure limit is an issue that lawmakers should have taken up at the beginning of the legislative session.

“This is nothing more than a legislatively created crisis that we could have addressed months ago, not a week before the deadline. This is a crisis in which we unnecessarily created a lot of anxiety within parents and teachers and administrators not knowing if they would be able to legally spend the $1.2 billion that had already been appropriated to them,” said Rios, a Phoenix Democrat.

Republicans on Monday said the fact that public schools hit the spending ceiling was because of “the magnitude of dollars that have been invested” in recent years, as Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said. He and others pointed to money lawmakers have added to school funding to increase teacher pay and to fund general operations.

Mesnard said his vote was swayed by hearing from proponents of Prop. 208, who told him that the legislature’s action on the aggregate expenditure limit for this year would have no bearing on the ongoing lawsuit. He later told the Arizona Mirror that those Prop. 208 supporters pointed him to the Dec. 9 stipulation in which both sides in the litigation agreed that no money from the tax increase could be raised or spend during the current fiscal year.

“In light of what I’ve learned about the lawsuit… it is specifically, for that reason, that I vote ‘aye,’” he said in explaining his vote.

Mesnard was one of nine Republican senators who voted yes, which gave Senate President Karen Fann the majority of her 16-member caucus that she wanted. He joined Sens. Nancy Barto, Paul Boyer, Fann, Rick Gray, Sine Kerr, David Livingston, Tyler Pace and T.J. Shope, who joined with Democrats to raise the aggregate expenditure limit.

Although the spending cap is lifted for the current school year, the problem will not go away. Livingston, a Peoria Republican, voted raising the cap temporarily, but cautioned that it will be an ongoing issue: The nearly $1.2 billion more than the spending cap this year will grow to as much as $1.8 billion in the upcoming budget year, and he said a better forum for determining the fate of the spending limit should be in state budget discussions.

Fann called on working toward a bipartisan solution for the constitutional spending limit to ensure similar debates don’t happen every year.

“I pray to God we can do it, for our kids’ sake and their parents’ sake,” she said.

No more money for ‘educational terrorists,’ says GOP senator

Some Republican senators who voted against raising the limit expressed indignation that Democrats, public school advocates and others on the left have routinely criticized them for what they claim is inadequate K-12 spending, even though the legislative and Gov. Doug Ducey have increased funding by billions in recent years. 

Last year, U.S. Census data showed Arizona was 49th in the nation for school spending.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he wouldn’t have let the resolution fail because the schools in his district do an outstanding job and he wouldn’t hurt them. But with the resolution heading toward passage, he said he needed to take a stand. 

No matter how much the state increases K-12 funding, Borrelli said it’s never enough for critics. And he said the increased spending has mostly been the responsibility of Republicans because few Democrats have voted for their budgets. Even in 2018, only four Democrats in the Senate voted for Ducey’s “20×2020” plan that provided funding to increase teacher salaries by 20% over three years. 

“It’s never going to be enough,” Borrelli said. “I’m tired of hearing the lie from the education industrial complex and the shame-stream media.”

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, echoed that sentiment. 

“Here we are, feeding the beast — more money, more money — in my opinion, capitulating to the educational terrorists who have held our kids hostage,” Ugenti-Rita said. 

Ugenti-Rita also said teachers and public school advocates have “done a grave disservice to our kids” over the past two years during the pandemic with continued pushes for remote learning, quarantines and masking for students. She said she was recently confronted with the problem when her daughter’s school tried to force her to stay home for two weeks after she came back from a sick day. The school pulled her from her classes and “proceeded to interrogate her” about her and her family’s health, the lawmaker said. The school backed off and allowed her daughter back to school after she confronted administrators, Ugenti-Rita explained. 

The only reason schools are open right now “is because parents had to collectively lose their minds nationally,” she said. Arizona teachers don’t want open classrooms, but want students doing remote learning forever, she alleged.

Rios said her Republican colleagues were taking more credit than they deserved for increased education spending, particularly when it came to the teacher pay raises in 2018. She noted that Ducey was offering nothing more than a 2% raise for teachers. What changed, she noted, was that thousands of teachers went on strike as part of the “Red for Ed” movement, creating public pressure to go further. 

“Lo and behold, 70,000 red t-shirts changed the story,” Rios said, referring to the red shirts that have been the de facto uniforms of the Red for Ed movement. “So, when we talk about a 20% increase, let’s give credit where credit is due. And it did not originate in a Republican budget.”

Teachers and students descended on the Capitol

With schools closed for the President’s Day holiday, many teachers came to the Capitol in their red shirts, with several dozen filling the Senate gallery during the vote, though most left in protest during Ugenti-Rita’s floor speech. 

Dozens of teachers showed up to call on legislators to raise the spending cap earlier in the day. Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said that gutting school budgets would devastate Arizonan classrooms. 

“That’s your salary, that’s the electricity for your room, that’s the bus fuel,” he warned. “It will all dry up and we will have to shutter our doors a month or two months early. Parents don’t want that, students don’t really want that and we certainly know that educators don’t.”

Parents joined teachers in advocating for students. Alicia Vink praised schools for continuing to support families during the pandemic. When she needed help managing her young son’s energy during remote learning, she said she reached out to occupational therapists and teachers to figure out a strategy to keep him occupied and give her peace of mind. Without access to funding, schools can’t be the valuable resources they are for families, she said. 

“The funding that our legislators are threatening to withhold pays for our registered nurses, our small class sizes, our occupational therapists, social workers, certified teachers, food service workers and many other things that help (my son), his classmates and our families to be successful every single day,” she said. 

Sixth-grader Guadalupe Rodriguez used his day off from school to visit the Capitol. Instead of sleeping in, the teen declared that he showed up to support his school, his voice low and nervous as the crowd held up phones to share his comments online. 

“We are the future,” he said. 

he hostility between Red for Ed activists and GOP lawmakers was on display throughout the day prior to the vote. Dozens of activists gathered on the second-floor lobby in the Senate, chanting at a lawmaker as he walked into the building, “What do we want? Fully funded schools! When do we want it? Now!” 

The Red for Ed demonstrators printed up mock “wanted” posters with the names of suspected holdouts on the vote. As the elevator doors opened on the third floor of the building, Borrelli was confronted by the activists, some of whom waved the posters with his face at him. 

“I will not succumb to threats,” he said heatedly. 

Fann said that some senators had been the targets of threatening and bullying text messages and emails over the past week and into Monday morning.

“I want people to know this is not acceptable. This is not the way we do things here,” she said.

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

Public school teachers and children rally at the Arizona Capitol on Feb. 21, 2022, to call on the legislature to lift a constitutional spending cap that will force schools to cut nearly $1.2 billion before the school year ends. Photo by Gloria Gomez | Arizona Mirror/University of Arizona

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