I-11? NIMBY

Picture Rocks (a rural, unincorporated community west of Marana) was the place to be this past Tuesday night when representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) came to a Citizens for Picture Rocks (C4PR) meeting to brief residents about the proposed I-11 highway. I counted about 120 people overflowing the community center and although people were mostly polite, it was obvious feelings run raw on this subject.img_2037.jpg

I-11, is a new north-south Interstate Highway envisioned to someday run from Mexico to Canada. In Arizona, the project is at the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study (EIS) stage to identify a Selected Corridor Alternative on a 280-mile long corridor between Nogales and Wickenburg. This EIS was authorized by the State Transportation Board in December 2014 and was slated to run for three years at a cost of $15 million to determine the “preferred alternative” route.  i11 map

Jay Van Echo, ADOT project manager for I-11, gave a “15 minute presentation” that must have lasted at least 45 minutes. During that time, he frequently stated that the “facility” (highway) project is in the deliberative, not decision stage. But, at a meeting in May 2016, he acknowledged there are only two serious possibilities: “through the Avra Valley or along the existing I-10.” The latter alternative involved the possibility of double-decking six miles of Ruthrauff and I-19. According to then-ADOT State Engineer Jennifer Toth in 2008, “it would do everything planners want for the next 30 years at one-third the cost. That would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.” But, according to the article in TucsonLocalMedia.com, ADOT rejected that option due to “cost”.

History like this might be why, despite very diverse political viewpoints, the Picture Rocks community (and many other stakeholders) is united in their opposition to an outcome many believe has been predetermined. That outcome, is a new interstate running through pristine Sonoran desert, and what they want to know is, how to stop it.

Although unified in opposition, they voiced a variety of reasons for it. Most of course, are concerned about losing their homes or having their property values negatively impacted. One resident though, raised concerns about how the proposed highway would obviously help Mexico and Canada, but was not about putting “America First”. Another, wondered how the President’s border wall would affect the project. Yet another raised a concern about a conspiracy between various government entities and with wealthy people who appear to be buying up land in the area. Nothing it appears, is apolitical, or what it seems, these days.

Other questions included concern for how pollution from trucks would be mitigated, whether homeowners would be fully compensated for their property if forced to move, whether there was any benefit for residents of Avra Valley (which abuts the Ironwood National Monument area) and when the final decision of a route would be made. On that last one, I never heard a definitive answer. What I gleaned from the i11study.com website, is that once the EIS analysis is complete this month, the effort will progress to the Final EIS from November 2018 to October 2019 to identify the preferred alternative and then the Record of Decision will identify the selected alternative between October and November 2019.

Van Echo repeated several times that there would be more opportunities for community members to provide comment and ask questions prior to the eventual decision being made. I got the impression though, that those responsible for this decision are not necessarily listening. Both the questions presented on behalf of the C4PR Board and members of the Picture Rocks Transportation Committee, and comments eventually allowed later by those in attendance, led me to that conclusion.

It’s not that people aren’t trying to be heard. The I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group (JSCPG) provided a clear position in their I-11 position statement issued on August 3, 2018. Consisting of representatives from the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, (comprised of 34 environmental and community groups and representing 30,000 people) and others in Pima County and beyond, agreed that,

Of the two routes proposed for a future 1-11 highway, the expansion and reconfiguration of the existing I-10 and I-19 corridor is the only acceptable route. A by pass through Avra Valley is not acceptable.

I imagine a NIMBY (not in my backyard) approach to a project such as this is fairly common. After all, an interstate may be good for business, but I can’t imagine anyone wants it running through their neighborhood. In a flyer handed out at the meeting, the JSCPG raised the point that this project could provide significant opportunity to address historic consequences resulting from the construction of I-10, “which physically divided our community and diminished the quality of life of our downtown and other neighborhoods along the highway.” They also encouraged ADOT and FHWA to refer to the I-11 Super Corridor study submitted to ADOT in 2016. This transdisciplinary study  was completed by the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The recommendations they put forward consisted of a comprehensive approach such as “the addition of light and heavy rail, walking, cycling, new technology for controlling traffic, as well as incorporating alternative forms of energy production and transportation.

Albert Lannon, a Picture Rocks resident and member of the Avra Valley Coalition, concludes of the two routes available, double decking I-10 through town, or making the truck route through Avra Valley, the FHWA is leaning toward the latter. But, Lannon isn’t taking that eventuality sitting down. According to the Arizona Daily Independent, in January of this year, he filed a formal complaint with the Board of Supervisors alleging the County Administrator and his staff of ignoring BOS Resolution 2007-343 which expressly “oppose[d] the construction of any new highways in or around the county that have the stated purpose by [sic] bypassing the existing Interstate 10 as it is believed that the environmental, historic, archaeological, and urban form impacts could not be adequately mitigated.” The resolution also discussed Avra Valley as worthy of protection.  His complaint was dismissed.

Unfortunately for the resident stakeholders and groups that want to protect our environment and wildlife, Pima County isn’t the only government entity now on-board with the project. According to PinalCentral.com, the “Pinal County Board of Supervisors passed its own resolution in 2010 in relation to Interstate 11, though this one expressed support for the project and deemed I-11 a ‘transportation priority.”‘ Likewise, both towns of Eloy and Casa Grande have issued statements of support for the project.

Meanwhile, Albert Lannon is not giving up and having watched the dynamics at the C4PR meeting, there are plenty who plan to fight on. Lannon obviously believes the cause is too important, claiming, “the new freeway would hinder existing businesses that cater to truckers driving on I-10 and damage the tourism industry that thrives in the many wildlife parks around Avra Valley.” He says his coalition will continue to hold candidates accountable. In an election year, maybe that matters, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

 

Advertisements

LD 11 Incumbents on Support for K-12 Ed

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a campaign manager for a candidate challenging Mark Finchem for the AZ House in LD 11.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you probably know that this is an election year where K-12 education has been on center stage, at least here in Arizona. Here in LD 11, where I live, both Representatives Mark Finchem (running for reelection to the AZ House) and Vince Leach (running this year for the AZ Senate), have intimated they are supporters of education and have worked to restore funding back to 2008 levels.

First of all, I believe that if a politician doesn’t specify they are a supporter of PUBLIC education, they probably aren’t. Secondly, funding for Arizona public education is still almost $800 million short per year from 2008 levels, even with the plus-up in budget approved this year. And oh by the way, bringing our funding back up to 2008 levels isn’t exactly something to brag about, and the 5 percent raises promised teachers in 2019 and 2020 don’t count until they actually happen. For now, they are just promises that future legislators will need to make good on.

Secondly, the only way to really know where an incumbent stands on an issue is to look at the votes they cast, to include the budget they voted for. As former Vice-President Joe Biden once said,

Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.

That’s why it is important for all of us to delve a little deeper. One resource for learning about incumbents’ voting records on K-12 education bills is the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) “Educating Arizona” voting guide. It is published each year to show how Arizona legislative candidates voted on key bills impacting K-12 education. Votes on bills however, aren’t the only measurement ASBA uses to track support for public education. They also assess “how helpful (or not) a given legislator was in advancing the ASBA political agenda during the legislative session, and how the legislator acted toward public education in general.” (Note: ASBA’s political agenda is brought forth by Arizona school boards all around the state and contains agenda items from across the political spectrum. It is then condensed by a Legislative Committee made up of a very diverse group of school board members and finally, is voted on by representatives from each school board at our annual delegate assembly.) Helpful actions legislators take are considered for extra credit and include helping to get bills heard (or not) in committee and helping to prevent bad bills from advancing. Based on this total assessment, ASBA awards legislators a thumbs up (Champion), thumbs sideways (Friend), or thumbs down (Foe).

I thought I’d go back to the 2015 guide to see how my legislators have voted on K-12 education bills since they first got in office. That year, both Representatives Finchem and Leach voted with the ASBA position on only two of the ten bills. Among other bills, they voted to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to children living on tribal lands and grandchildren being raised by their grandparents, as well as to replace common core.

In 2016, Finchem voted with the ASBA position on only three of seven of the bills and Leach only three of eight. They voted to establish caps on additional state aid, to phase-in empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs), and to expand and modify administration of ESAs (vouchers). They also voted against eliminating the freeze on KidsCare.

In the 2017 legislative session, Finchem voted with ASBA on three of six bills and Leach on four. They both however, voted in opposition of ASBA, for SB 1431, the full expansion of ESAs. It really can’t get more anti-public education than that, and their “thumbs down” rating reflects that reality.

2018 saw both Finchem and Leach vote on eight key K-12 education bills and each of them voted with ASBA on six of them. The most significant bill passed was SB 1390/ HB 2158 which renewed Prop 301 for 20 years and kept public education funding from going off a cliff in 2021. Although they both voted for this bill, their lack of support in general, earned them another “thumbs down” and “Foe” moniker with regard to public education.

Just in case there is any lingering doubt about their focus when it comes to support for public education, Finchem writes on his website, “School Voucher Program expansion is an important element to creating a diverse and well qualified employment pool, a factor that many job creators look for when deciding on which state to locate in.” Leach does not include education as one of his top five issues, prioritizing the 2nd Amendment and support for Pro-Life over opportunity for students.

Elections matter, and I encourage all voters to be informed where candidates stand on the issues that matter most to them. As Franklin Roosevelt said,

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

 

 

 

 

Education funding…the devil is in the details

One of the issues leading to the walkout during the #RedforEd movement, was Governor Ducey’s promise of a 20% raise by 2020 ONLY for teachers. The movement wanted the definition of “teacher” expanded and pay raises for all school personnel. That’s because teachers understand their’s is a broad profession, and although quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, every employee in a school district, whether a “defined” teacher or not, contributes to the ability of students to learn.

There is currently though, no consistent definition of “teacher” in Arizona. The 2018–2019 K–12 budget reconciliation bill, HB 2663, K–12 education; does not define “teacher”. The previous year’s budget bill defined “teacher” as: “any person eligible to be included as a teacher on a disrict’s FTE count submitted with its annual financial report, whose salary was paid under function code 1000 (instruction). Clear as mud, right?

The definition in Arizona Revised Statute (A.R.S) 15–901(B)(5), says a “Certified teacher” means a person “who is certified as a teacher pursuant to the rules adopted by the state board of education who renders direct and personal services to school children in the form of instruction related to the school district’s educational course of study and who is paid from the maintenance and operation section of the budget.” Okay, so that is a little clearer, but how is teacher compensation impacted by legislation passed last year to allow non-certified teachers to teach in Arizona public schools? Guess that means fewer raises for teachers as those more qualified continue to exercise their “school choice” to either retire or move to another state so they can earn a living wage. Just in case you didn’t see it, here’s a story about Texas buying up billboards in Arizona to lure our teachers away.

Yet another definition of “teacher” comes from the AZ Attorney General (AG) Opinion 101–014 on the Classroom Site Fund (Prop. 301 monies). The AG wrote that, “teacher” was not limited to traditional classroom teachers. “School districts and charter schools may use such funds for compensation increases for certified or certificated teachers and others employed to provide instruction to students related to the school’s educational mission.” An employee receiving base compensation from Prop. 301 monies would also be eligible to receive a salary increase as a teacher.

According to the AZ Auditor General, school boards would meet the Legislature’s intent by using any of the above three definitions. The Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Arizona Superintendents Association, all believe the Classroom Site Fund definition is the most defensible position and most consistent with legislative intent. That definition, as interpreted by the courts and the Arizona AG’s office, requires certification and employment as a teacher and that at least 50% of an individual’s time is spent on instruction central to the school’s educational mission.

Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association‘s sought to resolve the disconnect by demanding a broader definition of “teachers”, permitting the award of raises to more school personnel. To that end, Representative Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma submitted an amendment“seeking to expand the definition of “teachers” – those eligible for the pay hike – to include counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and librarians, all people excluded from getting a share of the earmarked raises.” Unfortunately, the amendment failed on party lines.

As reported on Tucson.com, TUSD Superintendent Trujillo said he intends to spread the new money around to all “educators” who touch the lives of children. “I see us supporting the educators as defined by this movement, those that are touching the lives of kids and working directly with kids. It’s about the monitors, it’s about teachers, it’s about the counselors, it’s about the custodians, it’s about the secretaries at our schools, it’s about the office assistants,” he said.

The $272 million in included in the FY 2019 budget for teacher raises is roughly enough to give all “certified” teachers in the state a 9 percent pay increase. It also includes an “additional” funding of $100 million in District Additional Assistance (DAA), previously known as “capital funding”, which is meant for big ticket items like new AC systems, patched roofs, buses, and computers. Although Governor Ducey orginally sold this as a way to begin to restore the 85% of this funding that was cut since 2009, the #RedforEd movement caused him to also sell it as a way to increase salaries for all support employees.

Please let that sink in for just a moment. Governor Ducey knows Arizona’s district schools have a tremendous backlog of deferred maintenance and repair for both facilities, vehicles and technology because the Legislature has cut $2.4 billion from public school capital budgets. He is proposing to restore most of that funding over 5 years, but education advocates aren’t banking on it, continuing with the capital funding lawsuit filed in 2017.

The Legislature has tried their best to make hay with the fact that district governing boards are largely responsible for deciding how the funding is spent within their respective districts. Although there is a fair amount of legal guidance on how the funding may be used, they are correct that local control dictates elected governing board members make decisions about funding allocation. These decisions are appropriately left to them because they best know the needs of their district and they are closest to the students, families, voters, and taxpayers to whom they are accountable. But, and this is a BIG but, governing boards can only allocate funding their districts receive and even with the $400 million plus-up in FY 2019, our districts will still be short of 2008 funding levels by almost $700 million per year. Cue mike drop.

Sine Freakin’ Die Already, Why Don’t Ya?

4EC2FB45-63F4-42DD-AE2A-C4B9A3A2348DEver since becoming involved in Arizona public education in 2012, I’ve heard people ask “why don’t teachers stand up for themselves?” Well, they aren’t asking that now. At about 6 am this morning, Governor Ducey signed the K-12 portion of the Arizona budget into law. It doesn’t contain everything educators wanted, but it contains much more than it would have without the brave, collective action of Arizona teachers.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the key elements of the approved budget with my comments or additional facts, interspersed:
– Increases the base level in FY2019 by a 1.8% inflation increase ($276.80) to $3,960.07 (without teacher compensation).
– Provides for an increase to teacher compensation of $176.2M in FY2019, $164.7M in FY2020, and $124.4M in FY2021.
— Keep in mind that FY2020 and FY2021 are “advance appropriations” which basically means a “promise” made now that future Legislatures are asked to keep.
— And because of the way the funding will flow to districts, Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials says, “it’s going to be difficult to show that every single teacher received a 9 percent raise,” this year, or a 20 percent raise by 2020. Likewise, an “initial analysis by The Arizona Republic, based on figures provided to the Arizona Auditor General by school districts, shows that 59 districts would not receive enough funding to give all teachers a 20 percent pay raise.”
– Requires districts and charters to post compensation data on their websites and ADE to compile this info and submit to Legislature and Governor.
— Local control means governing boards make the decisions they were elected to make and I believe they will have no problem standing behind their decisions.
— This requires more transparency of charters, and that’s a good thing.
– Requires ADE to reduce the formula suspension for district additional assistance (DAA) statewide by $100M in FY2019 and $64.4M each year thereafter.
— In other words, begin to restore 85% in cuts to capital funding made by AZ lawmakers since 2009.
— Exempts districts with a student count of fewer than 1,100 students from any DAA reductions, providing them 100% of DAA allocation in FY2019.
– Restores Charter School Additional Assistance (CAA) to full formula funding by FY2022 and increases it by 1.77% for the annual inflation adjustment with no increase to the DAA formula.
– Continues to exclude charter schools from procurement rules designed to ensure maximum competition, contract award to lowest qualified bidder, and that a contractor has a valid license to practice in Arizona.
— This is, in my opinion, is fiscally irresponsible. We should be demanding more transparency and accountability from all institutions that receive taxpayer dollars, not less.
– Increases the State Support Level per Route Mile for FY2018 by 1.77% for the required inflation adjustment.
– Requires each district to prominently post on its website home page a copy of its profile pages that displays the percentage of every dollar spent in the classroom by that district from the most recent status report issued by the Auditor General.
— Note that charter schools, although they are required to conduct audits, get to choose their auditors and the resulting information is not included in the AZ Auditor General schools efficiency report as it is for district schools.
— Also, note there is still a disconnect between what the Auditor General counts as classroom spending and the broader definition used by the governor, Legislature and Arizona public school leaders shows support for the classroom is holding steady. An infographic by AZEdNews illustrates the disconnect.
– Appropriated in FY 2018, $4,145,600 to ADE for the school safety program compared to $3,646,500 in FY 2017. The program will now be repealed on December 31, 2019 instead of December 31, 2018.
– Establishes the Computer Science Program Fund under ADE who will distribute grants on a first come first serve basis to schools that do not currently provide high school computer science instruction.
– Terminates the Schools Facilities Board (SFB) on July 1, 2022 and repeals AZ statutes relating to the SFB.
— It is important to note that the SFB was established in response to a 1994 court decision that found “Arizona’s system of school capital finance unconstitutional because it failed to conform to the state constitution’s “general and uniform” clause. That system relied on the secondary property tax, driven by the property wealth of a school district, and general obligation bonding. In 1996, the Arizona Superior Court imposed on the state a deadline of June 30, 1998 to develop a constitutional system of school capital finance or risk closure of K-12 public schools. On July 9, 1998 Governor Jane Dee Hull signed legislation that dramatically reformed the way K-12 schools are constructed in Arizona. This ended the four-year legal and legislative battle and established Arizona as the nation’s school finance reform leader. This legislation/law is known as Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today). On November 18, 1999, the Board adopted Building Adequacy Guidelines that now serve as the minimum standards for existing and new school facilities in Arizona.”
— It is also important to note that 24 years later, education groups have been forced to sue the state again, for capital funding, (now called District Additional Funding), that has been cut 85% since 2009.

Four Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Educators United (AEU) demands that were not funded, include:
– Cap class size at 25 students per classroom
– Define “Teacher” as: any non-administrative personnel who teaches students or supports student academic achievement as defined by the school district governing board or charter school governing body including, but not limited to nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, librarians and academic interventionists.
– Cap student-to-counselor ratio at 250:1
– Provide student support services personnel a 10% increase equal to the teacher pay proposal, which should also go into base level, and be paid for by tax conformity.

Of the failure to meet these demands, Joe Thomas, president of Arizona Education Association said,

While this bill moves the needle, it still does not go far enough. It does not restore the more than $1 billion taken from our students and it leaves out school support staff like counselors, bus drivers, librarians, and many more who are vital to the success of our students. The truth is that this budget is far from perfect. Lawmakers brokered it behind closed doors as a partisan deal, without input from us. We were not able to change the minds of lawmakers, so the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers.

The elephant still in the room (pun intended), is whether the revenue sources identified, make this budget deal sustainable, especially in future years. According to Tucson.com,

Republicans spurned several proposals to raise more money to ensure that there will not only be the dollars for future promised teacher pay raises but to finance some of the other priorities and restore per-student funding back to at least 2008 levels. That included phasing out some tax exemptions and eliminating the ability of individuals and corporations to divert some of what they owe in state income taxes to help children attend private and parochial schools.

For his part, Governor Ducey said in an email that,

The budget does not compromise essential state services to accommodate our teacher pay package. It maintains the state’s commitment to fund developmental disabilities, skilled nurses, Medicaid, critical access hospitals [sic], the arts, food banks, Alzheimer’s research and higher education. It accomplishes all of this, without raising taxes on hardworking Arizonans.

All I can say is, “for my next act, I’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

About the time I was finishing this post, the Legislature was reconvening for what should be their last meeting of this session. One can only hope, so that we can all breath a collectively sigh of relief. Unfortunately, their havoc wreaking is likely not yet done. Sources say Senator Yarborough is still looking to push through his SB 1467 which would increase eligibility for private school tax credits via School Tuition Organizations and therefore drain more funding from our public schools. These same sources predict an end run to repeal SB 1467, signed into law last year, which provided for the full expansion of vouchers. I don’t know for sure what GOP lawmakers’ motivation is here, but there can be no doubt that Prop. 305, (the initiative brought by the SOS AZ’s amazing petition signature collection effort last year), if it is on the ballot, will bring even more pro-public education voters (many of whom are Democratic), to the ballot box. It will be really interesting to see just how much disdain this Legislature has for their bosses — you know — Arizona voters.

On one more final note, I don’t agree entirely with Joe Thomas that he and the 50,000+ teachers that marched on the AZ Capitol were “not able to change the minds of lawmakers”. I think they, and other education advocates did make an impact, but years of free reign have calcified lawmakers’ unwillingness to bend to the people’s will. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Or, said another way, “karma’s a bitch”. Joe is definitely right that, “the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers.” It is in my opinion, the only step that will make a lasting positive change.

 

 

The voters won’t forget!

Jon Gabriel, (editor-in-chief of right-wing blog “Richochet.com”), in his “My Turn” on AZCentral.com titled, Gabriel: If Arizona teachers strike now, it’s a war against parents, not politicians, on was right. The voters won’t forget who’s responsible for the teacher walkout. But, I predict it won’t be the teachers they hold responsible. Arizona voters know that it is our lawmakers who have systematically underfunded our public schools over the last decade, creating an almost one billion dollar shortage each year, even after the Prop. 123 settlement.

Voters also know, that district capital funds (used for facility repair and maintenance and to purchase big ticket items such as buses and technology) have been cut 85 percent over that same time. And voters definitely know that we have the lowest paid teachers in the nation. That is one of the primary reasons that four months into the 2017-18 school year, we had 1,968 classrooms without a teacher and another 3,403 with people who aren’t trained to be teachers. 

Arizona voters are behind our teachers not only with words and honks of support, but deeds. All across our state, parents, family and community members, civic organizations, school boards members, district staffs, and yes, teachers, have worked hard to provide viable options for families to deal with school closures. 

From Boys & Girls Clubs, to YMCAs, to skeletal crews in schools, to expanded before and after school programs, to city programs, to churches, to food banks, to museums and animal rescue groups; our communities have stepped in to ensure the health and welfare of children. In Tempe for example, the city’s “Kid Zone”, a before and after-school program, operated all day during the teacher walkout. Likewise, with volunteer District teachers and staff, Mesa Public Schools opened four community centers to provide breakfast, lunch and free, supervised activities for children from kindergarten through the sixth grade. In southern Arizona, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona delivered backpacks of food to high-need students, and the Sierra Vista Unified School District, teachers and support staff met at the Mall at the Sierra Vista food court to grade papers and tutor students. 

Businesses around the state, such as recreation outlets, dance and martial arts centers, aquariums, sports centers, and grocery stores, have also jumped on-board, offering child supervision, recreation or a limited supply of basic food items. Some businesses, even welcomed employee’s children at work sites and offered flexible schedules to parents.

teachersArizonans are behind the teachers because they know this walkout is not about them, but rather the one million students they serve. We know that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions and that the average teacher spends on average, $500 out of their own pocket each year (some much more), to make those learning conditions as positive as they can. We also know even though quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, they can’t do it on their own. All the staff in a school contribute to a child’s development and education. Finally, we know that despite the fact we overwhelmingly support the better funding of our public schools, our lawmakers are intent on promoting vouchers, tax cuts and tax credits, that continue to divert our tax dollars away from that priority. 

Hate to sound like a broken record, but there really is only one way to ensure our public schools and their dedicated teachers are truly valued. We must elect legislators that, well…value them!

Note: I submitted this to the AZ Republic, but it was not published.

If it sounds too good to be true…

Okay, so maybe Governor Ducey and the Legislature really are trying to solve the problem. You know, the one they, and those before them, created by pushing tax cuts, corporate welfare, and school privatization. But, it is REALLY hard to have the faith, when they throw out words like “advance-appropriated.” As in, “we can’t give you all 20 percent right now teachers, so we are going to advance-appropriate it in the next two budgets.”

I googled “advance-appropriate” and got nothing on the first page of search results. On the second page, there was a report from the New America Foundation titled, “Advance Appropriations: A Needless and Confusing Education Budget Technique.”

The New America Foundation appears to be fairly non-partisan with a vision that includes, “Equitable, accessible high-quality education and training over a lifetime”, “A society that promotes economic opportunity for all”, and “Equal representation in politics and participation in accountable governance.” Its Board of Directors includes New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks, ASU President Michael Crow, and many others from business, higher-education, and journalism.

Their report on advance appropriations referenced above, discusses the practice of this funding mechanism in Congress, and calls such a, “rarely understood budgeting approach that shifts funding into the fiscal year following the year covered by the appropriations process.”

In the report’s summary on the first page, it states that,

Advance appropriations add complexity to the education funding process and are of no practical benefit to recipients…Congress should end advance appropriations for education programs by providing a one-time funding shift that moves advances back a fiscal year so that they align with the current funding cycle. A new scoring rule to prevent future advances should also be enacted. The combined effect will reduce complexity and increase transparency in the federal education budget process. Such a change does not increase or decrease education funding. But it does promote transparency, simplicity and clear decision-making in federal education budget matters.

Likewise, the Government Accountability Office’s Glossary of Terms Used in the Federal Budget Process states,

The use of the advance appropriations technique makes it difficult to assess the actual level of funding…because the program is funded in three pieces…Education advance appropriations also make it difficult to compare spending to the rest of the federal budget, because virtually all programs funded through appropriations receive only one regular appropriation.

Fast forward to yesterday and Arizona Capitol Reports writing that,

The budget appears to fix what has been a source of contention among teachers who worried that the raises promised in future years would never materialize. To ensure that teacher pay raises in future years get funded, the raise money will be advance-appropriated. The budget advance appropriates the five-percent raises in FY20 and FY21, an allocation that could only be reversed if a future Legislature votes to take the raises out of the budget. The $371 million that Ducey promised in district additional assistance is also advance-appropriated in the proposed budget.

Call me cynical, but what’s the difference between “advance-appropriated” and “a promise”. The statement above, that “an allocation that could only be reversed if a future Legislature votes to take the raises out of the budget” doesn’t provide me much peace of mind. After all, our Legislature routinely approves budgets at the last-minute, in the dead of night, to provide the least amount of transparency possible. And, even when we have laws that provide dedicated funding to education, they have managed to refuse to pay in accordance with the law – Prop. 301 inflation funding (that resulted in Prop. 123) ring a bell?

This latest workaround to the REAL solution – finding or creating new, dedicated, sustainable funding for K–12 education, isn’t the only such shell game obfuscating the truth. You may have heard that even with the state trust lands money Prop. 123 delivered, our districts are still funded at almost one billion less per year than in 2008. What you may not have heard, is that for the past decade, the state has rolled over each year’s final K–12 payment of $930 million to the next fiscal year. The Grand Canyon Institute (GCI) reported in its January 2018 report titled: “The State of the State Budget 2018: The Revenue Systems is Broken” that,

The lack of revenue resources means the state will likely enter the next recession with this rollover still on the books.” The report goes on to say, “With dollars extremely tight, the state has been unable to allocate funds to eliminate rollovers, so continues the $930 million K–12 rollover whereby the last payment of the past fiscal year is rolled over into the next one. This rollover represents 9.5 percent of the General Fund expenditures, more than three times as large as the use of rollovers in FY2008…The rollover is twice as large as the budget stabilization fund of $460 million – and consequently hides a significant ongoing deficit.” When the General Fund per capita real dollars (the state now has only $3 for every $4 it had in 2007), and the rollovers as a % of the General Fund are combined, Arizona is not running a balanced budget, but a deficit of “$5 billion ($1 billion in rollovers and $4 billion in lost revenue not recovered since FY2007 – half of the General Fund).

These funding schemes may work in good times, but what happens when the inevitable downturn arrives and the bills come due? Don’t think we want to take out a second mortgage on the Capitol buildings sold and leased back at a considerable cost to the state under Jan Brewer’s reign. It is way beyond time that our Governor and Legislature give up on the gimmicks and make the tough decisions to truly deliver for the people of Arizona. That is, oh by the way, what REAL LEADERS do. ASU economists have credited 90 percent of the state’s decline in revenue on tax reductions and analysis by GCI shows that the reliance on trickle-down as a viable economic policy has not produced the jobs promised. “Actual state employment growth” writes GCI, “has lagged below the ”natural growth“ estimated by the JLBC in 2011 [with the New Employment Tax Credit]…Arizona’s employment performance here is far less with about one-third of the actual employment growth actually translating into jobs being eligible for the tax credit.”

Unfortunately, Governor Ducey and this Legislature, seem blind to the truth and unwilling to do what needs to be done. Just think back if you will, to May 2017, when AZ education advocacy groups were fighting for 4 percent for the teachers and were told 1 percent was all the state could afford. How can we now, without ANY new revenue, afford 20 percent? Reminds me of that old saying, “if it sounds too good to be true…”

The Perfect Haboob

There are a lot of unique things about living in Arizona and our storms rank near the top. I know, I know, people who don’t live here are thinking what storms, thought it is always sunny and hot? Well, there is that, but we also have our crazy monsoon rains and wild walls of dust called “haboobs”, an Arabic word meaning “blown”.

According to Arizona’s ABC15.com, “Haboobs are giant walls of dust created from high winds rushing out of a collapsing thunderstorm. Cold air in front of the storm rushes down at an incredible rate, picking up massive amounts of dust and sand and blowing them into the air.” A 2011 haboob in Phoenix, was almost a mile tall and stretched across the entire valley, over 50 miles long. These storms can stretch as far as 100 miles wide and are dangerous not only to drive in, but to just be outside in, as rocks and debris thrown around by winds of up to 50 mph can be dangerous, and bad air quality causes many people difficult breathing.

What’s going on with public education right now in Arizona feels a lot like that. First of all, our Governor and Legislature have turned a cold shoulder to the crisis facing our teachers and the districts they serve. The assault on our public schools has been fast-paced and fueled by out-of-state monied interests like the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, despite overwhelming support for our public schools from Arizonans. And, all of this serves to obscure the real truth, which is that the focus on tax cuts and the push to privatize, are draining our public schools of available resources, making it very difficult for them to “catch their breath” and make the strides our state needs.

So, the big question at the beginning of this Legislative session was whether SOS AZ’s voter initiative would make it on the ballot. A couple of court decisions later and it looks like yes, it will. Of course, the Legislature might still repeal and even try to replace, the law that fully expanded vouchers last year (although that effort seems overcome by other events for now). There is also the possibility that the Prop. 305 (the name of the initiative), might be left on the ballot so that a Koch Brothers’ backed effort can produce the first-ever win on vouchers at the ballot box. This of course, would set them up for a full-court, across the country, privatization sweep. Either way, our mighty warriors at SOS AZ have vowed they “will continue to fight for public education because in order to have a strong state, we need strong schools.” Amen!

The second major issue for AZ public education was the decision by a Federal judge, that the funding plan for Prop. 123 to increase aid to schools from additional withdrawals of state trust lands money, was unconstitutional. Remember that? Can you believe that was announced just a month ago?

Changes made at the Federal level may fix the problem going forward, but whether the state must repay at least $344 million into the state trust lands is yet to be decided. Arizona has pushed back on the Federal ruling, but this fight is a long way from over and may even require the issue to go back to the voters according to former State Treasurer Jeff Dewitt. When it first aired, this was big news, but just as a haboob can blot out the sun, it’s been totally eclipsed by subsequent events.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Arizona education groups had been working for some time on a plan to get new funding for our schools. They looked at a variety of potential solutions, including sales and income tax increases, and the elimination of tax credits and loopholes. The effort was largely sidelined though (at least temporarily) when the wave of teacher strikes, from West Virginia, to Kentucky, to Oklahoma, finally hit the shores of Arizona.

With teacher salaries at the bottom of the barrel, a Governor and GOP-led Legislature prioritizing corporate welfare over adequately funding our schools, and a kick-ass #RedForEd movement in the news, it was only a matter of time before AZ educators said “no más”. They began to organize as Arizona Educators United, and made their demands, (including a 20% pay raise for teachers), known.

In a presumed attempt to head them off at the pass, Governor Ducey announced a 20% teacher pay raise and $100 million to [begin to] restore District Additional Assistance (capital funding). But his plan, writes the Phoenix New Times, includes no new state revenue, relying on overly optimistic revenue forecasts according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee who says it could result in a $300 million budget shortfall. This, coupled with the other unaddressed demands, pushed 78% of 57,000 (out of 60,000) teachers to vote to walkout on April 26th.

Fast forward to yesterday, when AZ Representative Noel Campbell, Republican, LD 1, announced “he will introduce a budget amendment – whenever Republican legislative leaders introduce a budget – for a three-year, 1-cent education sales tax increase.” His plan would raise $880 million in new revenue and required the state restore full funding for kindergarten, but also requires approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and the Governor.

Although in favor raising new revenue, AZ Dem legislative leaders made it clear yesterday that they do not support it coming in the form of an increase in sales tax. In a letter to Governor Ducey they wrote, “We should consider broadening the sales tax base for certain services, reversing decades of unproductive, revenue draining tax cuts for the wealthiest Arizonans, closing tax loopholes, and at a minimum capping tax credits that divert state revenues away from neighborhood public schools and into private schools.” The letter went on to say that, “These and other options – including federal tax conformity – are available and would more fairly and equitably restore the cuts to education and bring our educator pay to parity with our neighboring states.”

Ultimately, no matter what happens between now and our Primary election on August 26th, and the General on November 6th, Arizona’s voters will have the final say. My most sincere hope is that they will use that say to elect candidates at all levels, who understand education is an investment, not an expense. Candidates who understand that quality companies care about more than a tax credit, they want quality schools for their employee’s children, they want an educated workforce and they want modern, well-maintained infrastructure. Candidates who understand that they work for the people, ALL the people, not just those who are from the same party or support them with campaign contributions.

Arizona teachers will take a brave stand tomorrow, one that does not come without cost to them personally. The best thing we can do to support them, is to work to bring more parity to our Legislature, forcing all sides to be heard and all good ideas to be considered. To do this, we need only flip two seats in the AZ Senate and 5 seats in the House.

Arizonans understand we aren’t getting the results we want from our Governor and Legislature. We have the power to make positive change. Let’s hope we wield it wisely and forcefully.