- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - The passage of a measure boosting education funding by tapping Arizona’s land trust and using general fund cash means school districts will see an immediate infusion of nearly $300 million next month and slightly more for the coming school year.

Many will immediately boost teacher salaries, hoping to halt a crisis that has seen school officials scrambling to fill positions left empty by instructors fleeing the profession.

At Dysart Unified School District in the northwest Phoenix suburbs, Superintendent Gail Pletnick said Thursday that teachers will receive a 4 percent one-time payment for the current school year and 4 percent raises for the coming year. That will boost the average teacher’s salary to $44,140 from $40,478.

The district will receive about $5.5 million by June 30 and most of it will go to raises. Dysart’s current year budget, excluding capital expenditures, is nearly $133 million, and it has 25,000 students.

“Retaining our staff and really committing to them the type of support they need to be able to support student success is critical,” Pletnick said.

Flagstaff Unified School District will get about $2 million more and use about three-quarters of the new money for teacher raises. Finance director Scott Walmer said going forward, the extra money will mainly be eaten up by inflation.

“We see this as one chance to give a nice pay increase - because after this we go right back to the 2 percent inflation, which is kind of treading water,” Walmer said.

The increase will bring the district’s average teacher salary from about $42,000 to nearly $43,500. Entry level salaries would go from $34,000 to about $34,700. The district’s maintenance and operations budget is about $63 million for 9,700 students.

Proposition 123 passed with about 51 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election. County election officials finished tabulating votes Friday, and the measure continued to increase its lead, which was so small that its passage was unclear until late Thursday.

The $9.6 billion state budget signed by Gov. Doug Ducey this month provides just over $4 billion for K-12 schools, about $3,600 per student. The voter-enacted measure will increase withdrawals from the state’s land trust by about $2.1 billion over 10 years, and add $1.3 billion in new general fund spending over the same period. That increases per-pupil spending by about $300.

Still, Arizona schools will remain near the bottom in terms of overall per-student funding at 48 out of 50 states, Walmer noted.

Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Board Officials, said most districts plan teacher raises with the passage of Proposition 123. But he said that’s just the start of what’s needed to restore school funding, which was slashed when the state was hit by the Great Recession.

“We believe that we need additional resources to provide the services to students,” Essigs said. “We’ve been losing teachers, we have some of the highest class sizes and we need to be looking at what increases need to be made and in what areas to allow us to provide the services that students need.”

Ducey has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he plans other measures to increase school funding. He’s called Proposition 123 a “first step” but not outlined what’s next. He has praised the coalition of education officials, business leaders and lawmakers who backed the measure, which settled a long-running lawsuit brought by schools after the Legislature failed to give yearly inflation boosts required under a 2000 voter-approved Constitutional amendment which raised sales taxes.

“This is a broad coalition, I’m proud of this coalition, and step two is going to involve a conversation with that coalition,” Ducey said Thursday. “Whether they show up to the Capitol or not, we’re going to continue that conversation. That something that I’ll commit to.”

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