PHOENIX — The head of the House Education Committee wants the Department of Education to turn loose $85 million to help forestall anticipated teacher layoffs.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, noted several districts have announced they will need to let some teachers go ahead of the 2021-22 school year for fear they won't have the state aid to pay their salaries.
That's because aid is directly linked to the number of students enrolled. And the most recent figures show more than 55,000 children have disappeared from district schools this year, about 5% of total enrollment, a figure that translates out to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
On paper, schools get state aid based on the number of students enrolled. And, theoretically that means if the students come back, the state funds will flow.
Only thing is, Ms. Udall said, districts have to make decisions now whether to offer contracts for the coming school year.
"The problem is, if you fire those teachers and the kids do come back,you've suddenly got overcrowded classrooms,'' she told Capitol Media Services.
And Ms. Udall said it may be impossible for schools that were hardest hit by declines to rehire those same teachers: Given the teacher shortage statewide, they may by that point have found gainful employment elsewhere.
What that leaves, she said, is schools hiring long-term substitutes who are not certified as regular teachers.
In a letter Ms. Udall sent Monday to state schools chief Kathy Hoffman, she said the education department is "for some reason holding onto nearly $85 million of discretionary money'' from its initial $1.5 billion allocation of federal COVID relief dollars.
"That should be put to use to help stabilize Arizona schools so they don't have to make premature reductions in staffing when may of those students may be returning in the coming school year,'' Ms. Udall told Ms. Hoffman. And she questioned the agency's need for $7 million to administer that $1.5 billion allotment — the maximum allowed — when there are other more pressing needs.
Ms. Udall said she expects at least part of the fund problem to be resolved when lawmakers adopt the state budget.
Some of that, she said, will be plans eliminating that differential between what schools get for teaching students in person versus those who are learning online.
The state funds the latter at just 95% despite indications of additional costs for such programs.
But Ms. Udall said there's a bigger problem. She said some districts that were doing the best to maintain an in-person option for their students are the ones she believes ended up getting financially shorted.
She used the example of Tucson Unified School District, which she said got around $7,000 per child in federal COVID-relief dollars that were doled out largely along the lines of which districts have the most Title 1 schools. Those are schools where a high percent of youngsters live in poverty.
And, Ms. Udall said, TUSD did remote learning most of the year.
By contrast, she said, Vail got about $180 per youngster while Gilbert schools got about $300.
"So you have this huge discrepancy and you have districts like Vail and Gilbert who have really worked to have in-person teaching through as much of the time as possible,'' Ms. Udall said.
"That's really expensive because they're doing the in-person teaching but they're also doing the online at the same time,'' she continued. "So they have two modes of teaching going on at the same time, they've got extra expenses from the technology but then also extra expenses from the cleaning, from substitutes, from the personal protective equipment.''
Yet they're the ones getting the least aid.
So what Ms. Udall wants, at least for the short term, is that money sitting at the Department of Education. And she said it can be divided up so that all districts are guaranteed a minimum per-pupil aid.
In a response to Ms. Udall, Ms. Hoffman acknowledged the need "to provide schools with budget stability and avoid unnecessary layoffs.'' And the schools chief said money from discretionary funds already is being distributed, though Ms. Udall told Capitol Media Services that "there's still a lot left.''
But Ms. Hoffman said some of the blame for what schools are now facing financially can be traced directly to Gov. Doug Ducey.
He promised last year that schools would have at least 98% of the state aid they were getting in the prior year, regardless of attendance.
Only thing is, Ducey provided just $370 million for that based on federal dollars he got. Hoffman said the actual cost of missing students was close to $620 million.
"When the subsequent shortfalls became apparent in November, the governor's office pointed to the legislature's need to solve this problem,'' Ms. Hoffman wrote.
The need to guarantee schools will have money next academic year is based a presumption that the students who disappeared this year will return.
Ms. Udall said one big reason for the drop was that many parents of the youngest children, seeing what was happening with the virus, simply decided to keep them home an extra year.
That is borne out by figured from the Department of Education: Of the more than 55,700 decline in children in public schools last year, close to 30% was in preschool and kindergarten programs.
Of the others, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said he expects them to return.
Part of it, he said, is as parents have to returned to work they want their children in a safe place.
"They know where that is,'' he said. And then there's what the kids themselves want.
"I think students want to be in that school community,'' he said, where there are their friends, the sports and the activities.
And there's something else at play.
Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said some districts lost more students than others because of geography.
"Gilbert is prime charter school country,'' he said, giving parents who wanted their children in the classroom more options. But he, too, expects that trend to reverse as traditional schools return to in-person instruction.
Beyond that, Mr. Kotterman said charter schools just don't have the capacity to handle that many students on a long-term basis.