Thousands protest cuts in state budget
Associated Press
March 5, 2009

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By Jacques Billeaud and Paul Davenport

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/282932

PHOENIX Several thousand people rallied outside the state Capitol for better funding for public schools as Gov. Jan Brewer gave a speech to the Legislature about the state's budget crisis Wednesday.

Protesters included students, parents, teachers and people from school organizations, labor unions and other groups critical of budget cuts already made and of the prospect of deeper reductions.

The Legislature in January cut about $130 million from K-12 schools to help close a $1.6 billion shortfall. The school cuts included reduced funding for equipment and were much smaller proportionally than cuts imposed on most other state programs, such as universities and state agencies.

A common complaint of many at the rally was that lawmakers and some citizens don't realize how cuts to education will hurt them.

Jenny Svans, who teaches second grade at John K. Kerr Elementary School in Mesa, said she's concerned that the state's budget crisis will lead to bigger class sizes and cuts to after-school programs. "Unfortunately, I don't think a lot of people are aware of what would happen if these cuts did take place, how it would affect them, how it would affect their child," she said.

Eric Shelley, a budget specialist for a health-care company, said the Legislature must invest in education so the state can improve its business development and generate more tax revenue.

"Businesses don't want to come here if they think there's no education going on, if there's no place for their employees to raise their kids," he said. "If you are pro-business, you should be pro-education."

In her speech to the Legislature, Brewer proposed a $1 billion temporary tax increase, along with spending cuts and use of federal stimulus money, to close a projected $3 billion deficit in the next state budget.

She said the temporary tax increase would preserve schools, public safety obligations and essential public health services for the state's most at-risk citizens.

Budget cuts approved in January for public schools for the current year amounted to 3.2 percent of state general-fund money spent on public schools and 1.3 percent of overall funding, according to the legislative budget staff. The overall figure also includes money from local districts' property taxes and supplemental funding provided from a special state sales tax for classroom education.

Before the cuts in January, state and local spending on K-12 district and charter public schools this year totaled approximately $6 billion, with approximately $4.4 billion from the state and $1.6 billion by local districts, according to the legislative budget staff.

The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees in January released lists of possible budget cuts for the current fiscal year, next year or both.

Along with cuts adopted in part or fully in the package of reductions approved in January, those listed for next year included a 10 percent lump-sum of districts' non-protected basic state aid to save $220 million, elimination of state funding for all-day kindergarten to save $218.3 million and phasing out funding based on teachers' experience to save $7.3 million.