East Phoenix School District Shares Difficult Funding Decisions

This post was originally published here.

There’s a lot of talk about the need for more education funding at every level, but what does that really mean? What are the impacts of limited funding? How would significant new investments in education have an impact? What are examples of difficult decisions leaders make with stretched resources, and how does that impact students and the community? In our new blog series, Expect More Arizona staff connect with key stakeholders across the state to dig a little deeper into the funding issue. 

Episode 1 – Dr. Jeff Smith, Superintendent, Balsz School District

Christie Silverstein recently sat down with Dr. Smith to learn more about some of the issues he has been faced with in recent years and what the district has been able to accomplish despite funding cuts. Listen to the audio interview or read a summary below.

Limited Resources = Difficult Funding Decisions

Jeff Smith, Balsz SuperintendentBalsz School District has faced a reduction in their budget nearly every year over the past ten years. The governing board has had to make many difficult decisions, including whether to continue funding full-day kindergarten and preschool programs and whether to keep nurses, librarians, and art and music teachers in schools. Dr. Smith also expressed a great need for additional emotional support services for students and staff.

“Many students suffer from multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (also known as ACES). The needs of the district’s diverse population are changing, yet the funding structure has not changed significantly in decades.”

Also, district leaders are mindful of the fact that, while they are focused solely on best serving the needs of their students, there is often an external microscope focused on classroom versus non-classroom spending. Many support services do not qualify as dollars going directly into the classroom.

“Last year, we had to decide whether to fund social worker interns in our schools. This has proven to be a very effective program for students and yet these are dollars that will go against our system when compared to other districts in the state and how money is allocated using this formula.”

The funding for the intern program comes from the federal government and is therefore subject to funding changes at the national level. So, despite the positive impact it has on students, if the funding goes away, so will the program.

What Is Working?

Balsz is fortunate to have passed their last budget override that provided funding for updated curriculum. As a result, the district was able to purchase an English Language Arts curriculum and a Science curriculum that are aligned to the state’s newly adopted standards.

“Should the resources that teachers and students utilize to meet the expectations of standards be left to a community’s choice to pass an budget override? Or is this something that should be automatically funded by the state?”

Additionally, Balsz has been able to provide a mentoring and induction program for beginning teachers as a result of grant funding awarded by the Arizona New Teacher Project formerly known as the Master Teacher Program at the Arizona K-12 Center. This has helped to provide support to teachers and has been credited with reducing teacher turnover.

“Supporting the newest members of the profession should not be a decision that districts have to grapple with by winning support from non-profits. We will know we are serious about educating Arizona students when basic needs are a given, not an option.”

What Additional Investments Are Needed?

“We appreciate policymakers increasing funding for teacher salaries – it was very much needed. Arizona has fallen far behind other states in this area. However, the entire system has been lacking in funding for years. Our bus drivers, instructional assistants, office staff and other classified employees have also suffered from a lack of funding.”

Dr. Smith wants to pay a competitive salary to their wonderful teachers, however, providing higher salaries is not the entire solution. Teachers need resources and support to grow in their professional knowledge. Embedded professional development is an ongoing challenge for schools. High-quality mentors and instructional coaches assist teachers to use data to drive instructional decisions and to reflect upon their practices. High-quality school administrators are also very important to a high-functioning school.

In order for the entire system to thrive, school districts need to keep the best interests of all employees in mind. This means that an additional 5 percent, if shared among all employees, may not represent a 5 percent increase for teacher salaries. Balsz School District’s devoted teachers and governing board members have taken this into account. They made the decision to use the funds to increase the wages of all employee groups in the district because they understand that everyone is here to make Balsz a better place for students and staff.

“In short, simply paying people more does not guarantee high-quality instruction on a consistent and enduring basis. Arizona needs predictability if we want our educational system to excel. We must expect more from all levels in our state. This requires forethought and dedication from our policymakers as well as wise decision-making at the local level.”

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