Despite a 10 percent shortfall in Proposition 301 funds statewide, the Amphitheater School District will be able to give its teachers the raises they had been hoping for since October.
Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel, said the district had originally set aside about $1.8 million for teacher performance pay. Roughly speaking, he said, the fund is short about $180,000.
Proposition 301, a voter-approved initiative, raised Arizona's sales tax by 0.6 percent for education. Amphi expected to receive about $5 million in extra revenue, but with the recent economic downturn, Amphi and the entire state are suffering from an unpredicted deficit.
To make up for that shortfall, Jaeger said the district is using money it had originally set aside for things like AIMS remediation and other improvement programs for students.
"We held back a pot of money for other things that we were going to spend it on like the AIMS remediation and various different things," Jaeger said. "And then when we saw that the 301 money wasn't coming in like it was supposed to, we kind of held on to a lot of that, realizing that we were only going to get 90 percent of the estimate."
Jaeger said those programs the money was originally set aside for will not be suffering.
"They were extra monies to begin with," he said. "They were monies we had never spent before and it wasn't the kind of impact where it was like a cut or anything. We certainly would have liked to have been able to use those funds for other things, but obviously we want to make sure that we take care of the teachers' compensation and that promise to them."
Under the district's 301 compensation plan, teachers could receive up to $2,600, depending on whether they meet all of the goals their schools set.
Deanna Day, the district's 301 performance pay manager, said she has yet to get the reports from the schools saying whether they met their goals which are based in part on AIMS and Stanford 9 scores.
Jaeger said the district held onto the money specifically for teacher compensation to avoid what other districts have had to go through in order to make up for the shortfall.
Scott Mundell, the assistant superintendent of the Marana Unified School District in charge of district finances, said MUSD has had to use the district's cash reserve of about $3.4 million to give teachers in that district the raises they had been expecting.
But Mundell said the district's biggest problem has not been the shortfall, but rather the delay in payments from the Arizona Department of Education. He said the department has been about three months behind in getting 301 payments, but added that within the past month, the district has received five payments from the state.
"Only in the last 30 days have we been able to catch up," he said. "We're probably right about at break even."
In order to make sure the district wouldn't be in debt from having to use its cash reserve, Mundell said MUSD took a similar action to Amphi in that it used funding that was originally allocated for student programs and put it toward teacher pay and therefore replenished the reserve.
"When we saw the shortfall, the programs were still in the planning phases, so we were able to hang onto those funds," Mundell said.
Tom Collins, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education, said the state was behind on making payments because of the unavoidable delay that occurs when money is transferred from the Arizona Department of Revenue to the Treasury Department and finally to the Department of Education.
Adding to the delay, however, were the state's charter schools, said Scott Thompson, Arizona assistant superintendent in charge of school finances.
Thompson said funding is distributed to schools based on the student count on the 100th day. For traditional school districts, the funding is based on the 100th day count from the previous year. For charter schools, however, it is based on the 100th day count of the current year because of the amount of attendance fluctuation that occurs. Since the 100th day count of the previous year has already been determined, it doesn't take a lot of time to figure out how much money goes to traditional school districts, Thompson said. But since it takes time to verify the information provided by the charter schools, that caused an additional two-month delay.
All of this might be avoided next year, however, due to Arizona Senate Bill 1232, which turned 301 money into a budget controlled fund rather than a cash controlled fund. That means that instead of waiting for payments to come in as they did this year, school districts can allocate 301 funds at the beginning of the fiscal year based on estimates made by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in March of the previous fiscal year.
However, this could create financial problems for the districts should estimates turn out to be higher than the actual revenue. If this happens, school districts could find themselves in debt at the end of the year.
Thompson said if that happened, it could hopefully be taken care of the next year. He said the JLBC will make its estimates based on figures from the previous year, not what it actually expects the state will receive in sales tax revenue. That way, if estimates are lower than the actual revenue, the district could use that money to pay off the existing debt.
"The goal of the budget control was to stabilize the amount available for teachers every year," Thompson said. "It's very hard for traditional school districts to have half their contracts set in stone and you were unable to tell teachers how much money they were going to get."
However, some are uncomfortable with the idea of school districts spending money they don't have.
"That's irresponsible," said Amphi Governing Board Member Mike Prout. "That would be madly irresponsible for any school district to do that."
Prout said he would rather have the uncertainty of a cash controlled funding source and still be in the clear than to deal with the implications of not having enough money at the end of the year to cover expenses. The added worry of another year with a rocky economy also concerned him, he said.
"We could be in debt and we could have massive layoffs," he said. "You'd be mortgaging the future to pay for the present. What happens if you have another downturn and then you're in serious debt?"