Three of the four walls in the boardroom at the Wetmore Center are covered in artwork created by elementary school children. Sometime during the four-hour Amphitheater Public Schools governing board meeting April 15, someone knocked one of the masterpieces off the wall.
It was placed in a folding chair at the back of the room when the meeting adjourned, a fitting metaphor for what parents and teachers came to protest during that meeting: the possible dismantling of the art, music and physical education specialties at the elementary level in the district.
At the standing-room-only meeting, 11 parents and teachers pleaded with the board to remove from consideration the elimination of these specialties as part of the "worst-case scenario" budget cuts presented by Superintendent Vicki Balentine at the board's March 25 meeting, and a number of them called for the district to consider a budget override election.
District officials presented a draft of 14 possible program and staffing cuts - slashing the budget by $3.44 million - on March 25 that would be necessary should the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee's proposed budget become law this spring.
If the JLBC budget passes, Amphi would realize a $3.24 million shortfall between its general budget limit of $71.6 million and its proposed budget of $74.8 million. The $3.44 million in cuts would cover that shortfall.
Last on the list of the 14 possible reductions was eliminating elementary art, music and physical education classes and reassigning those teachers to the regular classroom. By filling vacancies with misplaced art, music and PE teachers instead of hiring new teachers, the district estimates it could save nearly $1.4 million.
The board also considered, but took no action on, a recommendation to identify "pocket exceptions" to existing school attendance zones, which would result in students being bused to schools outside their neighborhood when the neighborhood school is at or near capacity (see story page 6).
Speakers at the April 15 board meeting asked the governing board to consider a budget override to address its budgetary woes, which, if approved by voters, would allow the school district to exceed the state-determined district budget limit.
Tom Moser, a teacher at Painted Sky Elementary School, 12620 N. Woodburne Ave., said the proposed state budget cuts to education will only get worse and the district needs to think "long-term."
"We definitely need a tax override," he said. "I want to put it into the kids. I'll produce teachers that will work for you, my PTO will do everything it can" to get a budget override passed.
Boardmember Kent Barrabee said the board's role in a budget override "would be very limited," but that "we are in crisis … and it usually takes a crisis to wake people up."
Mesa Verde parent Bill Nettling asked the board to "lead us into what needs to be done."
"We empathize with the very difficult position you're in," Nettling said. "But we moved into this district because of the specialties. My first-grader identifies her days by function -today was art day, tomorrow is music day."
The board instructed Balentine to provide information about the details of an override election - the costs involved, the history of prior override attempts in Amphi, examples of how other districts have successfully passed overrides and a timeline for implementation of the process - at its April 29 meeting.
Balentine reassured audience members that the removal of art, music and PE as specialties is "a last resort" and in fact may be a moot point if a computer glitch at the state level can be fixed.
A presentation by district financial officer Constance Cigliana showed a discrepancy between the number of children the district shows on its 100-day count and the 100-day number the State Department of Education shows the district as having. That number is key in determining state funding of school districts.
Arizona schools are funded on the basis of Average Daily Membership (ADM) counts taken on the hundredth day of school. It is determined by state law and, according to Arizona Revised Statute 15-901, refers to "the total enrollment of fractional students and full-time students, minus withdrawals, of each school day through the first one hundred days" of the year. Withdrawals "include students formally withdrawn from schools and students absent for 10 consecutive school days, except for excused absences as identified by the department of education."
Fractional students are pre-school and kindergarten students, which districts are only allowed to count as half a child, said Cigliana. If school starts on Aug. 8 and a child is on vacation and does not enroll until Aug. 28, the school district will not get credit for that child in the 100-day ADM count because the law considers 10 consecutive school absences as withdrawal.
Because some children are funded at a lesser rate than others - schools get less money for elementary students than high school, and less money for regular-education students than for those with special needs - funding is not static, but, when averaged out, Arizona schools receive about $4,600 per student from the state, including transportation costs.
Cigliana said the state Department of Education notified school districts earlier this year that there were some programming errors in the software used by school districts to report 100-day counts to the state. She began looking at the numbers Amphi has compared to the numbers the state reports the district having on its Web site and discovered the 100-day count was 197.567 students less than what the district had counted.
After reporting the discrepancies to the DOE, Cigliana was told that programming errors exist in the software school districts use to report their ADM numbers to the state, as well as programming errors at the state level. Cigliana told the Amphi board she will continue to identify and resolve the differences in the district's ADM numbers and the state numbers and Balentine said that "going through this process will allow us to recover those 200 students" and receive about $1 million more in state funding than was predicted at the March 25 meeting.
"That leads our worse case scenario to improve substantially and our best case scenario to put us $800,000 to the good … we are trying to be proactive by finding these kids in the computer," Balentine said. "Ultimately the state tells us what number we have to use, but if we can find them before that time, it will help us."
Cigliana said the district has until July 15 to adopt the 2003-2004 budget, so "if I don't have these correct numbers by the second week in June, I'll start having a major problem."
However, she added that budget amendments are always allowed and if she doesn't discover the correct 100-day numbers before the adoption of the 2003-2004 budget, she will keep trying and once they are found, "I'll bring an amendment to the board" which would then increase the district's budget limit.
BOARD FROWNS ON BUSING PROPOSAL
Amphitheater Public Schools district officials were unsuccessful April 15 when they came before the governing board and asked for authorization to identify "pocket exceptions" to existing school attendance zones in "situations where schools are nearing capacity."
The proposal, introduced by Superintendent Vicki Balentine and presented by district legal counsel Todd Jaeger, suggested busing students from new developments in district attendance zones that do not support the district with voluntary school impact donations.
The district began asking for donations from developers last year. Four developers have agreed to pay $1,200 per home built: Monterey Homes, A.F. Sterling Co., Estes Co. and Black Horse Partners.
Recently, however, some developers have declined giving the requested donations and last month the Oro Valley Town Council told district officials they would not force developers seeking rezoning permits to give school donations.
The donations are designed to help Amphi accommodate the estimated children new developments might bring to district schools. The district uses a U.S. Census formula that estimates how many elementary, middle school and high school students are produced per home.
Currently, district enrollment is nearly 17,000 students.
The state Schools Facilities Board, established under Students FIRST legislation, determines when school districts can build schools with state money based on total student capacity in a district. Amphi was one of the original 16 plaintiffs that brought the lawsuit against the state that resulted in the Students FIRST legislation.
Because Amphi is losing enrollment in parts of the district's southern end, the Schools Facilities Board has told the district there is no need to build a new school, regardless of accelerated growth in the northern end of the district, until approximately 2013.
Therefore, Amphi has been looking for alternate methods of funding new schools or expanding existing schools in the northern part of the district where officials say schools could become overcrowded within a few years. One method is the voluntary school impact donations.
"We're bringing this forward seeking the board's direction of this proposal as a concept only," Jaeger said. "We're not at this time necessarily identifying any particular schools that would have any occasion yet for specific developments being relocated as they come on line, but to discuss what our problems are and what our options are in addressing those problems and how this may be one way to address problems."
Jaeger explained how the state Schools Facilities Board controls "not only when schools can be built, but also what defines capacity" at schools.
"When we define a school as having a capacity of 1,600, the State Schools Facilities Board may look at it and say, 'Your gymnasium is larger than we would build and your library is larger than we would build, so your capacity is really 1,800 because you could put kids in some of that library and gymnasium space," Jaeger said.
Jaeger said the primary concerns were at Coronado K-8 School, 3401 E. Wilds Road, Wilson K-8 School, 2330 W. Glover Road, La Cima Middle School, 5600 N. La Canada Drive and Nash Elementary School, 515 W. Kelso Drive.
Jaeger said the traditional means of accommodating overcrowding by drawing boundaries is possible "but it affects many people and it upsets people who bought homes in a particular area because they wanted their kids to go to that school and then we shift the boundaries."
The new proposal would isolate pockets in existing areas, Jaeger said, and notify new developers in that area that they "are an exception to this attendance zone."
The district would still follow "our duty to educate" the children in the pocketed areas, but "we will do it where it is physically possible," Jaeger told the board.
Jaeger said this would limit the dissatisfaction to those people who are new to the attendance area instead of upsetting people who have lived in that zone for years.
"And, frankly, it is a means to encourage developers to help us address our (growth and space) needs," he said. "If we (present) this as a (possibility) to developers now, we will hopefully get more participation into our donation program."
Boardmember Mike Prout said pocketed boundaries sounded like "an innovative concept," but wondered if it was legal.
"It is legal, because we are making the decision to cite a development's school attendance based on capacity issues - either the capacity is there or it isn't," said Jaeger. "To entice people to participate in our donation program, the program will have to have some assurance that we're going to accommodate (students in a development) at the school where their folks want to be accommodated. But if you don't participate, you may or may not be able to have your kids go to this attendance area, based on capacity."
Boardmember Kent Barrabee said he was concerned that donations would be enough to expand the capacity effectively. Boardmember Jeff Grant said he found the proposal "troublesome," because he thought students should be able to attend school close to their homes, adding that transportation costs would rise with the administration's proposal.
Jaeger explained "negotiations are crucial" with developers because there may come a time when there is no capacity at a school and the district couldn't enter into a contractual arrangement with a builder guaranteeing attendance in a neighborhood school if the donations offered wouldn't cover the cost of expanding capacity sufficiently at a school.
The board instructed district staff to study the issue further and come back at a later date with more information. Jaeger said after the meeting, "Truthfully, there's no need to pocket now. What we have to do is find all the developments and say with some concreteness how many homes they will produce and how many kids."
According to Oro Valley records, the town has sent Amphi 21 notices on subdivision plats or rezonings within the district's boundaries since Nov. 2001.
The town has received four responses from the district, explaining the impact of these new developments or rezonings on district schools.
In one case, the district objected to a rezoning; in two others, it objected to plat proposals and in the fourth - referring to a tentative development at La Canada Drive and Moore Road - District Planner Judith Imhoff explained that the district might have to shift attendance boundaries and require "associated student busing … for several existing schools to balance attendance at neighboring campuses."