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Schools banking on Prop 100 vote

By Daniel Kraker

Flagstaff, AZ – The school year is winding down, but at Coconino High School in Flagstaff, the band is tuning up.

Jennifer Hamilton has directed the school band here for seven years. But last month she was given a "reduction in force," or RIF letter basically a conditional layoff notice.

"It's difficult to be doing what you do, and realize it's nothing personal, it's just what they have to do to try and make cuts."

More than 200 music, art, and other teachers in Flagstaff were "riffed" in the face of severe state budget cuts to education.

"We're really hoping that if the sales tax passes, to be able to bring back some of the people involved in the reduction in force."

That's Flagstaff schools superintendent Barbara Hickman. She's staring at a 4 million dollar budget cut even if Prop 100 passes. Without it, it's 8 million. That puts Hickman in a tough bind.

"Because we realize that a small class size is very beneficial to kids."

Arizona's budget was crippled by the recession and one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. To balance its books the state legislature has slashed funding for a whole host of programs, but most significantly to education.

As a result most districts have taken steps similar to Flagstaff. Prescott for example also RIFFED all its art, music and PE teachers.

But that doesn't sway Prop 100 critics like Byron Schlomach, an economist for the Goldwater Institute.

"I can't look at this and say we're going to be raising taxes for the sake of children, I'm quite convinced we'll be raising taxes for the sake of bureaucracy and job preservation."

A decade ago, Schlomach points out, Arizona voters passed a sales tax increase with proceeds earmarked specifically for the classroom. Back then about 58 percent of every dollar spent on education went specifically to classroom instruction. Now, even with more money, that percentage has actually dropped slightly, according to Arizona's Auditor General.

"So what happened to all that money," asks Schlomach. "Why isn't it in the classroom, why aren't the schools using it in an efficient manner?"

Flagstaff schools Superintendent Barbara Hickman replies that "you have to be cautious to understand that services or people such as full time nurses, librarians and counselors, are not considered instructional or classroom costs by the auditor general. Most teachers and most parents would view them as very important to an overall positive school environment."

Hickman also says some critics forget about expenses that didn't exist when THEY went to school.

"And one of those costs is technology. Is it the responsibility of a public school system to encourage kids and use technology in an increasingly sophisticated way. If you believe that that this, and I do, then you need support staff to take care of that."

It's not just the state's public schools that have felt the brunt of budget cuts. Arizona's three public universities have had their state appropriations cut by 18 percent over the past two years. If Prop 100 fails, Northern Arizona University President John Haeger says that will grow to 30 percent.

"I don't believe a state in the 21st century can ever develop economically, could ever pull itself out of this recession, without a strong public education system, so there is a lot at stake."

So much so, that groups that typically oppose tax increases are supporting Prop 100. John Sininger is an executive at Gore, one of the largest employers in northern Arizona.

"I believe we need to send a message to our legislators, no one here wants higher taxes, no one does. But we're sending a message that it's that important to us, that we are even willing to raise our taxes to do this."

Over the past couple years, more than half the states have cut funding to K through 12 education. Even more have slashed university budgets. Most of those states have also increased taxes. Nick Johnson directs the State Fiscal Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The vast majority of the 33 states that have taken a balanced approach that is they've done a combination of both tax increases and budget cuts have done so through legislative action."

Not by going directly to the people. For example the California legislature approved a sales tax increase that's set to expire next summer. But when they went to voters asking them to extend it, they said no. Education leaders in Arizona are banking on voters here to make a different choice.