- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday he wants voters to approve his plan to spend more money from Arizona’s multi-billion-dollar land trust account to boost funding for K-12 schools.

The proposal would funnel about $1.8 billion in new cash into the state’s schools over five years and smaller amounts in the following five years.

The state’s permanent land trust endowment now stands at $5.1 billion, but the balance would still grow slightly even with the increased withdrawals Ducey is proposing. Schools would get between $320 million and $375 million in extra funding in each of the first five years if voters approve the proposal in 2016, according to a Ducey staff analysis.

Schools would get about a $300 boost to the $3,400 per student they now get each year.

Ducey said he hopes his proposal kick starts settlement talks over a long-running lawsuit between the Legislature and school districts over missed inflation funding payments early this decade.

Ducey has been laying the groundwork for a series of education reforms in the past month, including an overhaul of a complex school funding formula.

“As you know, I believe funding is only one part of the equation to improving our schools,” Ducey said. “Other reforms are needed, including ensuring money is spent effectively to get the result we want, empowering our principals, turning around the worst-performing schools and ensuring they get new management, giving teachers the respect and the reward they deserve and the tools they need to do their jobs.”

But getting more money to schools - Arizona at the bottom of the list nationally in per-pupil spending - was his message Thursday. He promised that the language he asks voters to approve will not allow other state school funding cuts. He also pledged to fund voter-required yearly inflation boosts.

“This is our demonstration of financial leadership for K-12 education, and I think the language will be clear that we put to the voters that this will be additional dollars for K-12 that will be protected, along with inflation money,” Ducey said.

Reaction from educators and lawmakers was mixed.

Republican Sen. Don Shooter called the proposal a “fine idea, and a step in the right direction.”

“Look, Texas has got oil, and we’ve got land,” Shooter said. “So why in the hell are we setting on our assets, if you will, when the kids have a need here, and we have to educate our kids.”

Democratic Sen. Katie Hobbs had unanswered questions.

“What happens after 10 years? What happens if it doesn’t pass at the ballot box? And what the hell is the connection between this and the inflation lawsuit which he referenced twice during his remarks?” Hobbs said.

Andrew Morrill, president of the state teachers union, the Arizona Education Association, said he’s concerned about details of how the money will be distributed.

“Every school in Arizona, every public school, is underfunded right now, drastically,” Morrill said. “Every teacher is in the bottom of state rankings for teacher salaries. So a distribution that is broad, that doesn’t play games, that is separate from a reform agenda that picks winners and losers, will be of much more value.”

Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University, said the governor is making what appears to be a reasonable decision.

“We’re not going to spend it frivolously, we’re not going to throw it away, it’s not going to go in the Colorado River and float away,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to our kids. It’s going to improve the quality of our workforce.”

The state land department manages about 9.2 million acres Arizona got when it became a state. The land is held in trust to provide revenue for K-12 schools and 12 other beneficiaries, and proceeds from sales are put into a trust account.

The permanent land trust account is projected to hit $7.6 billion by 2020 if no changes are made.

By law, 2.5 percent of the cash is sent annually to schools, about $80 million in the current budget year. Ducey wants that increased to 10 percent for five years, then 5 percent for the following five years.

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This story has been corrected to show Arizona’s permanent land trust account is projected to grow to $7.6 billion, not $47.6 billion, by 2020 if no changes are made.

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