School Funding: 1 Arizona District Turns Out The Lights On Fridays

By Alexandra Olgin
Published: Monday, April 18, 2016 - 5:00am
Updated: Monday, April 18, 2016 - 5:08am

No librarians. No arts and music classes. No new textbooks.

These are just some of the cuts the Coolidge Unified School District has had to make over the past six years. Coolidge is a largely rural district an hour southeast of Phoenix. As drastic as those cuts sound, they pale in comparison to this one:

Coolidge shaved a day off its school week this year. Students will be in school about an hour longer each day, Monday through Thursday, but come Friday, school’s closed.

“To achieve savings,” says superintendent Charie Wallace, “we couldn’t have people flipping on lights or turning on a computer.”

Wallace says no one, teachers included, are allowed in school buildings on Fridays. “We had to flat tell them, ‘No coming in or there will be consequences.’ ”

The shorter schedule does not save the district that much money, but Wallace says the move was really a creative way of attracting and keeping good teachers.

“Anything I can do to pay teachers,” Wallace says, “because they are the key to student achievement. They are the ones that deliver the goods.”

The three-day weekend and a modest salary hike cut the district’s teacher turnover rate in half this school year. That may explain why nearly one in five Arizona school districts have likewise gone to the four-day week.

While the move has helped Wallace hold onto good teachers, there’s also a downside. A four-day school week is hard for many working parents. That’s one reason Debbie Martinez chose to enroll her kids at an area charter school that’s still on a five-day schedule.

“I couldn’t afford to pay someone to watch my kids on Fridays,” Martinez says. “I think all kids should be in a five-day week school.”

And she’s not alone. As more parents seek out five-day alternatives, Coolidge’s schools stand to get even less money from the state because they’re funded based on how many students they serve.

The problem started back in 2010, when state lawmakers scaled back district funding for things like teachers’ salaries. Since then, that’s meant a $4.3 million shortfall for Coolidge.

In 2014, an Arizona court ordered the state legislature to pay schools back for that lost money. Lawmakers have since proposed a compromise to give them more than 80 percent of what they are owed.  But that won’t happen unless voters approve Proposition 123 in May.  

Most of the new money would come from a state land trust. Republican state lawmaker Jay Lawrence says the compromise is an important first step toward making schools whole without putting the burden on taxpayers.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Lawrence says. “The people of the state of Arizona don’t want tax increases.”

Lawrence says it’s also important to note: Not all schools are struggling as much as Coolidge.

“There is money in the schools that is not part of the surface presentation of ‘Here’s how much money we have,’ ” Lawrence says, referring to grants and donations that some districts receive. “Many do have more money than they claim.”

Even if voters back the funding compromise, it’s a temporary fix meant to last 10 years.

“It really saddens me how this state has treated public education,” says superintendent Wallace, a 42-year veteran of public education. She says supporting school funding shouldn’t be a partisan issue. “Our founding fathers started public education. It evens the playing field.”

 

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