Most districts’ budgets still mysteries

East Valley Tribune
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Andrea Falkenhagen

With just three weeks to go until the new fiscal year, most taxpayers have yet to hear how much they’ll be paying to support East Valley classrooms. School taxes are typically the largest portion of a homeowner’s tax bill. Public education eats up 46 percent of the state budget.

Yet most school districts wait until the end of June to make their proposed budgets public — giving residents just two weeks to offer input on how their tax dollars will be spent to educate children.

“Some (districts) are very guarded with that information. Others put it up on Web sites and they encourage public participation,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. “Every local government is different in terms of how they deliberate the budget — how much of that is public. How much is private.”

Some districts, like the Gilbert and Mesa unified school districts, won’t publicly discuss their upcoming budgets until meetings on June 26.

That’s not the case in the Scottsdale Unified School District, where the governing board has been discussing the 2007-08 budget for months.

“It’s important to understand the relationship between the nuts and bolts of the budget and what parents see in the classroom,” said Suanne Rudley, a Scottsdale parent.

“Whenever a school district is looking at changes in its budget, I think it’s a smart move to lay out any of that as early as it’s talked about and allow for as much community feedback as possible. Because nothing upsets people more than finding out something that they think is important is being considered for elimination,” Rudley said.

But the Mesa and Gilbert districts do things differently.

In Mesa, administrators will approve the budget July 10, said Jill Benza, assistant superintendent of business and support services.

“We’re trying to hold out as long as we can, until the state Legislature finishes,” she said.

By comparison, Mesa rolled out its municipal budget numbers as early as last winter, and has been discussing them publicly ever since. In May, the City Council reviewed the proposed budget, which it is scheduled to formally adopt on June 25.

Chuck Essigs, a spokesman for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and former business superintendent in the Mesa district, places the blame for late budget adoptions on the Legislature. Since a large portion of school funds comes from the state, districts are kept on hold until the end of June to learn how much money they will get for the upcoming school year.

“If the Legislature gives you a 3 percent increase rather than a 2 percent, that could equate to hiring a significant number of staff,” Essigs said.

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, agreed.

“It’s becoming an annual thing, these late negotiations and contingent contracts,” he said. “It leaves little time for public comment while legislative leadership negotiate behind closed doors.”

Yet some districts find a way.

In a process similar to the Scottsdale district’s, the Tempe Union High School District used financial projections to propose a budget on March 28. Over the succeeding few months, teachers and citizens lobbied to reverse a recommendation that would have slashed librarian positions. Their efforts were eventually rewarded when the board opted to save those jobs.

“It makes logical sense. The more input you have from your employees and the community, the better budget you can build,” said Tempe governing board member Michelle Helm. “I think those are vital communications and you only get that if you start early.”

Likewise, the Chandler Unified School District governing board started talking about their district’s budget at its April 11 meeting.

These school districts say they use what they know to get the budget ball rolling — a mandated 2 percent funding increase from the state and per-pupil calculations from enrollment.

“They know what they can count on,” McCarthy said. “The rest of the stuff that’s in the works in terms of more money for teacher pay is, in the grand scheme of things, even in a district the size of Mesa, a really small amount of money.”