School launches 'Go Fund Me'

The Arizona Republic
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Mary Beth Faller

After years of absorbing funding cuts from the state, teachers and parents at one West Valley elementary school are taking an extraordinary step to save their librarian's job — a crowdsourcing campaign.

A Go Fund Me campaign has been set up online to raise $20,000 to save the librarian's job at Estrella Mountain Elementary School in Goodyear, in the Liberty Elementary School District.

Liberty will lose $2.4 million in state funding next year because three of its five schools are district-sponsored charters, and the state will no longer fund that type of charter school.

Arizona school leaders are becoming more desperate and creative in their search for replacement dollars as state funding continues to shrink. Some innovations are small, such as the Go Fund Me campaign, some are medium-size, with some districts shifting to a back-to-basics curriculum that cuts arts and music programs. Other changes are more drastic, like moving to four-day school weeks in rural Arizona.

Then there are the dozens of districts like Liberty that switched schools to charters in a now-defunct bid to get more per-pupil money from the state.

Lawmakers said that the districts with charters were taking advantage of a funding loophole the state couldn't afford. The phaseout of district-sponsored charters will save Arizona $24.5 million as it recovers from the recession.

Some superintendents of district charters say they are meeting the needs of families with specialized programs, which is the intent of charter-school legislation. They point to the high success rate of the schools.

Of 63 district-sponsored charter schools, 31 are rated A and 24 have a B in academic ratings from the Arizona Department of Education.

Caught in the middle is Lara Morris, a media specialist who likes to dress up as "Star Wars'" Princess Leia to spark a love of reading in her students.

Morris, a former parent volunteer, said that when she was hired as media specialist at Estrella Mountain three years ago, it was her dream job. The $20,000 annual salary isn't a lot, but it wasn't the main draw.

"If you look at the dollar amount, that's not why I took this job," Morris said. "It wasn't about the money. Now, it's all about the money."

Parents who have contributed to the campaign are angry that it's come to this.

"I think this is an absolutely hideous situation to be in," said parent Rodie Purcell, who donated $100. She is unhappy that next year's state budget includes $24 million to move prisoners to private facilities as money is siphoned from schools.

"I am a small-business owner, but we are not using Box Tops and Go Fund Me to fund private prisons in Arizona," Purcell said. "We are using money for education to do that and it makes me furious."

Grabbing charter money

Districts were among the entities allowed to launch charters when the state approved the concept in 1994, but few did so.

Then, as the recession hit and state funding decreased, more districts decided to take advantage of the extra $1,400 per pupil they would receive for switching existing schools to charters.

In 2013, 18 districts, including Liberty, converted more than 50 schools to charters.

"I can tell you that even with the charter funding, it just made up for the cuts we had absorbed from the state," said Andrew Rogers, superintendent of the Liberty district. "We weren't getting ahead. We were getting back to where our budget was in 2008."

During the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers became alarmed at the sudden influx of new district charters. Some said the districts were taking advantage of a funding loophole.

The Arizona Taxpayers Research Association warned that districts without charters could file a lawsuit over the unequal funding.

"With the way the Legislature is moving, every decision that has to be made going forward has to be made with an eye toward equity," said Sean McCarthy, an education research analyst for the tax-watchdog group.

School districts were able to get the extra per-pupil funding for switching existing schools to charters and were allowed to count the charter students to collect more in override and bond property-tax revenue. Regular charter schools get the extra per-pupil funding instead of asking voters for overrides or bonds.

"That's where the double dipping comes in," McCarthy said. "You certainly can't blame them. Why wouldn't you do that if that option was available?"

He said the dilemma reflected the outdated way that Arizona funds education.

"We've now created a very horizontal environment, meaning that there's no longer boundaries for where you can send your child to school," McCarthy said. "Yet our finance system still mirrors the old format where we pump money into different silos."

The Legislature phased out the funding over two sessions. In 2014, lawmakers cut additional assistance for the newest district charters, starting next year. This past session, lawmakers voted to cut funding in half for the older schools as well, with the intent to eliminate it by 2017.

In Maricopa County, the districts with charter schools are Buckeye Union, Cave Creek, Dysart, Higley, Liberty Elementary, Litchfield Elementary, Paradise Valley, Saddle Mountain, Washington Elementary and Wickenburg.

The 2014 rollback did not affect the districts with older charters, including the Vail and Cave Creek unified school districts.

But in March, the Legislature's all-night budget-making session produced a new cut: The original district-sponsored charter schools will get half the additional per-student funds for 2015-16, with the intent to eliminate it the following year.

Debbi Burdick, superintendent of Cave Creek, said the move was a shock because Gov. Doug Ducey's original budget proposal included plans to phase out the charter funding over about 15 years.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," she said. Cave Creek will lose about $1.7 million next year for its four charter schools.

Saving a job

When districts switched schools to charters, they typically created specialized programs to lure students. Many focused on science, technology, engineering and math. Others launched language-immersion or arts specialties.

Estrella Mountain added the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum that requires participating schools to have a librarian.

Rogers said that Liberty's three charters will keep their programs and most of the positions needed to run them. The district will use $900,000 left over from last year to offset part of the $2.4 million loss. But one item that's on the table to be cut is the librarian's job at Estrella Mountain, a B-rated school.

So teachers and parents launched the Go Fund Me campaign April 21.

Typically, school leaders are loath to use donated money to pay for jobs because the funding is unsustainable.

"But right now, we're in a perilous situation and we have to go one year at a time," said Michele Bove, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at the school and one of the teachers who started the campaign. She donated $100 to save her colleague's job.

So far, $7,115 has been raised.

Hilary Bilbrey said she chose Estrella Mountain for her two children because of the IB program, and that losing Morris would be a blow.

"Lara makes it absolutely enchanting in there," said Bilbrey, whose family donated $100 to the campaign. "Without her, I'm convinced that the kids' hearts and minds will not be nourished the way they are now.

"We've been here three years, and we are considering moving out of state because of the absolute lack of respect that education gets here in Arizona."

Cal Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, near Tucson, said that eliminating funding for district-sponsored charters goes against Ducey's pledges.

"If you listen to the speeches, they say we need to incentivize high-performing schools and reward them and proliferate," he said.

"These schools are A-rated schools. It's the exact opposite of the speeches."

Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey's spokesman, noted that the funding phaseout for district-sponsored charters began before Ducey was elected, and that eliminating the assistance to the older charters will bring them into line with the others.

He said in a statement that Ducey's staff is still working on a plan to expand highly performing charter schools.

"Gov. Ducey is committed to educational excellence, and through the Arizona Public School Achievement District, passed as part of the budget, we will be creating the ability for our best teachers and principals to reach more students," the statement said.

Vail was one of the first districts to sponsor a charter school, building Civano Community School 15 years ago with a bank loan and using the charter funding to pay it off.

"We cannot call the bank and say the state cut the money that they've been paying to us for the last 15 years," Baker said. "We have to pay the mortgage and it'll have to come out of the operating budget."