- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - School officials say an apparent oversight in the state budget approved earlier this year could require a handful of districts to pay back millions of dollars for past funding received for district-sponsored charter schools.

Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek Unified School District said the mistake by lawmakers could cost her district “at least over $9 million” and would leave it bankrupt.

However, state Department of Education spokesman Charles Tack said Monday that affected districts wouldn’t have to repay the money right away so there’s time during the 2016 legislative session to address the issue.

The issue arose as a result of a budget provision in which cash-strapped lawmakers phased out supplemental funding for district-sponsored charter schools.

Lawmakers said they intended that the affected schools be exempt from a repayment requirement already in state law but that they didn’t put it in writing, the Arizona Capitol Times (https://goo.gl/BfKk9l) reported.

“We just physically left that sentence out of this year’s budget. And it was never the intent to punish them. If we don’t get that fixed, it’s almost to the point of bankruptcy for these school districts,” said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek.

Carter said she’ll ask Gov. Doug Ducey to include the issue in the agenda if he calls lawmakers into special session.

Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Board Officials, said he was surprised by the omission because school officials were told by lawmakers that districts wouldn’t be penalized.

Cave Creek Unified converted four of its seven schools to district-sponsored charters, and Burdick said it could be hit hard.

“They didn’t put in a hold-harmless clause, which means they would expect us all to pay all the money back that we had ever received. I don’t believe that is their intention, but somebody forgot,” he said.

Besides Cave Creek Unified, other districts that reaped additional state funding by converting schools to charters included Vail Unified, Benson Unified, Payson Unified, Fort Thomas Unified and Casa Grande Union High School District.

Vail Unified’s superintendent, Calvin Baker, said he hasn’t yet calculated how much the Legislature’s omission could cost his district.

“We haven’t done that calculation yet, but it would be a number we would literally not be able to pay,” he said, estimating it would be “millions upon millions of dollars.”

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