Gilbert's school districts prepare for budget woes

The three districts that serve Gilbert students face the same question for 2021 that districts across Arizona are are asking: What will state funding look like.

COVID-19 first hit as schools were working through the Fiscal Year 2020-21, so little changed. But as schools head toward budget preparation for FY2021-22 this spring, things are more uncertain.

Average Daily Membership—total enrollment of fractional students and full-time students, minus withdrawals, of each school day through 100 days in session—stands to be down from a little bit in Higley USD to a lot in Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler USD, according to district officials. ADM is a key figure in the state’s enrollment formula for school districts.

The districts also saw large increases in online enrollment for this year, but full-time online students are funded at 95% of what in-person students are.

Additionally, Gov. Doug Ducey set aside money last year for districts to make up the deficit, promising that schools would be funded at a minimum of 98% of their current budgets if they met certain conditions. But as districts received results from their “Enrollment Stabilization Grants” applications, they found the money was about half of what they needed to get back to the 98% figure, officials said.

That leaves officials looking to the state legislative session this spring to see what their funding pictures will look like—and bracing for potentially large budget cuts.

Chandler USD, for example, is already planning for a potential loss of $25 million, which could mean a reduction of 186 staff members.

By contrast, HUSD, with fewer students lost or moving to online than its neighboring districts, has been hurt less. Officials anticipate relief funding and carrying forward a budget balance, among other things, will allow the district's budget to increase and even allow it to bump employee salaries 5%.

Teacher salaries remain a concern

Gov. Doug Ducey’s “20 by ‘20” plan, a three-year rollout of a 20% increase in teacher salaries, has expired, meaning districts will not see additional money to prop up Arizona’s historically low teacher salaries.

On top of that came the coronavirus pandemic, leaving all budget issues a concern. Addressing staffing and salaries will be a big part of budget discussions this spring.

Arizona voters did pass Prop. 208, a 3.5% surcharge on residents whose income surpasses $250,000 annually, or $500,000 if married and filing jointly. The surcharge only is applied to income past that threshold.

The money would support education, including salaries, according to the proposition’s language.

However, Prop. 208 is under legal scrutiny with lawsuits contending it is unconstitutional. Those suits are yet to be decided.

Even if it does stand, the money would be applied first to 2021 income, meaning it would not be collected till April 2022 and not then available to schools until their Fiscal Year 2022-23 budgets.

Chandler USD considers override

The Chandler USD governing board will consider a potential override election in 2021, according to the board’s agenda roadmap attached to the Jan. 4 meeting. The district has been facing the same struggle as districts across the state as COVID-19 has taken a toll on the budget. The district’s Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry is expected to give a report to the board later this year.
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.