School districts are starting work on their budgets just as Arizona lawmakers begin to decide how to divide state tax revenue for public education.
Education leaders across Pima County say they are in better shape now than last year but still need legislators to increase capital spending so they can pay for textbooks, technology and building maintenance.
“Last year, we were worried about closing schools, and this year we’re worried about how to reduce class sizes and be more competitive,” said Yousef Awwad, deputy superintendent of operations for the Tucson Unified School District.
Although Tucson’s largest school district is not facing a multi-million-dollar deficit as it had in the past, it still has financial challenges ahead in figuring out how to maintain old buildings and school buses without an increase in capital funds.
“We will probably be OK for a year, but beyond that year we will have to be looking at other solutions, such as bonds, unless the legislators do something in terms of funding allocation,” Awwad said.
TUSD is doing better than it has in years, despite predicting a future loss of students, he said.
Enrollment is growing in the Sahuarita Unified School District south of Tucson, where officials expect a 4 percent increase in student population next year.
“Sahuarita is growing, and we are likely going to need to build a new school in the next few years,” said Manuel Valenzuela, Sahuarita’s school superintendent.
With the current formula for funding schools, Valenzuela said, getting money to build a new school may not be easy.
Sahuarita has an ongoing maintenance and operations budget override, approved by voters, that allows the district to continue to provide services that might have been slashed because of cuts to public education.
The steepest cuts were to money used for textbooks and technology, “all in an era when we are trying to advance new standards and assessment initiatives, so it’s been challenging,” Valenzuela said.
For the Marana Unifed School District, those cuts put capital funds at $22,000 last year, compared with more than $3 million in 2008.
“This is an area where Marana, and I think a lot of school districts, have suffered,” said Dan Contorno, chief financial officer for Marana schools.
After making tough decisions in previous years Marana was able to give employees slight raises last year and Contorno hopes to continue in that direction.
“I am optimistic because we have a community that cares about education and is rallying,” Contorno said.