Ducey defends demands on tighter education budgets

PHOENIX -- He acknowledged it may not be entirely fair.

But Gov. Doug Ducey is defending his demand that even the school districts that already are spending far more than others in the classroom move another 5 percent into instruction. The governor said it comes down to making the books balance.

"We're dealing with a state budget that is broken,' he said Monday. "We're doing what we're asking all of the citizens to do and small businesses, is to tighten their belt and to live within their means.'

What that also means, Ducey said, is "specifically asking is that additional dollars go into the classroom.'

Ducey said his demand to shift dollars is backed up by a report by the Auditor General's Office showing that just 53.8 cents of every dollar goes to instruction. The balance covers everything from utilities and janitorial services to administration and school buses.

But he acknowledged that report also shows that some of the more than 200 districts are doing far better than others, with a wide disparity among them.

Tucson Unified, for example, puts just 48.7 cents of every dollar into the classroom while Tanque Verde Unified weighs in at 60.8 percent.

In Pinal County, classroom spending at Casa Grande Union is 46 cents of every dollar while Florence Unified comes in at 50.6 cents and Red Rock Elementary is at 61.9 cents.

And lots of other districts far exceed the statewide average. But Ducey brushed said it's irrelevant to him that some districts may already have squeezed the non-classroom side of the spending equation.

"We may have a differing situation district by district,' the governor acknowledged. "But right now we've got a budget, we've got to live within our means, and we're making the tough decisions.'

Ducey's budget, at least on paper, includes another $134 million in classroom spending. But the governor conceded the real bottom line number is far less than that.

"We're putting more money into K-12 education, $11 million more,' he said. The rest of that is based on that directive to move money from non-classroom spending to instruction, which essentially amounts to an accounting maneuver of money already going to the schools.

And that is entirely built on that 5 percent across-the-board shift, with no exceptions.

Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said Ducey's whole approach is misguided.

"We continue to stand by the fact that the 'dollars in the classroom' measure is an outmoded way of benchmarking how Arizona supports student success,' she said. Vega said Ducey's proposal pays no attention to the most crucial factor of all: Are students achieving.

She said there is no evidence that moving money from one pocket to another will lead to better schools.

If nothing else, Vega said her organization finds the idea of telling all districts to move 5 percent of non-classroom funds to instruction inherently unfair.

"A straight-across reduction will look and affect every school differently depending on where and how they have (already) moved monies in and out of the non-classroom spending,' she said.

Chuck Essigs who lobbies for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials agreed with Vega that the governor's idea is not ready for enactment. He proposes postponing the whole issue for a year.

"We need to put together a plan for what we want to happen in Arizona rather than just rush into, 'Well, I want to have something done this year,' ' he said. "Well, we ought to do it right, not just in a rush.'

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss is not interested in such a delay. And Scarpinato said just because a school district has done a good job of maximizing classroom spending does not mean they should be exempt from the directive his boss wants the Legislature to issue.

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