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Arizona school districts in 'mad scramble' to hire teachers while spending cap goes unsolved

Multiple school districts in the state have a variety of openings still. The difference this year compared to other years is the lack of applicants.

ARIZONA, USA — Arizona’s school districts are in a “mad scramble” to fill teacher vacancies heading into the new school year and there are signs the shortage is worse than in previous summers.

“I can tell you this year is unprecedented,” said Kristine Harrington of the Scottsdale Unified School District. “The teacher shortage is real and while we are a destination district that many seek out, we are still looking for special ed, math, science, and foreign language teachers.”

Meanwhile, Governor Doug Ducey has shown no inclination to call a special legislative session to resolve a legal restraint preventing many school districts from providing larger salary increases to teachers.

'We are seeing a lot more teachers leaving the profession'

Examples of teacher vacancies reported this week across the Valley include:

  • The state’s largest K-8 district, Washington Elementary School District, has 43 teacher openings and 24 special education openings. “This is more than previous years,” said Pam Horton of WESD.
  • The Cartwright School District in the West Valley has 77 certified openings and 100 classified openings. “We are working with the International Teach Alliance to bring in teachers from other countries,” said Victor Rodriguez of CSD.
  • Peoria Unified School District has approximately 80 elementary openings and another 40 special ed openings. “This isn’t particularly high for this time of year,” said Danielle Airey of PUSD. “The difference between this year and years past is that we typically have a pool of applicants ready to fill our open positions.”
  • The Deer Valley School District in the North Valley has 77 general ed openings, 61 special ed openings and 13 counseling vacancies. Although vacancies are higher compared to last summer, the district is opening a new school and adding some programs so it’s not “an apples-to-apples comparison”, said Monica Allread of DVUSD.
  • Legacy Traditional Schools, a network of two dozen K-8 charter schools in Arizona, has 68 teaching positions open. The charter announced this week its board passed an aggressive 16% increase in salaries to recruit and retain teachers. “We are seeing a lot more teachers leaving the profession. There’s such a demand from the private sector workforce,” said Aaron Hale, Executive Director of Legacy Traditional Schools. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make a historic investment in our own teachers, to keep them here.” Read more about Legacy’s salary boost and what other charters and school districts are doing to retain teachers (LINK).

AZ Superintendent: 'We are very concerned'

Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said she’s in daily contact with school leaders at all levels.

“We are very concerned with their ability to recruit and fill teacher vacancies for the upcoming school year,” Hoffman said.

Another problem is the pool of available candidates has dwindled.

“Beginning in May I felt like the chatter from human resource professionals was exacerbated, or became a little more alarming,” said Justin Wing of the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association. Wing says school districts are reporting that many schools have “zero” candidates for positions.

“We anticipate more vacancies at the start of this school year than before,” Wing said.

What will happen if vacancies are not filled?

The most recent semi-annual survey of schools by the AZSPAA in February showed almost one in seven teacher positions were not filled by a fully certified teacher. Long-term subs and teachers with alternative certifications end up filling many vacancies. Schools also re-shuffle classrooms to make up for vacancies, leading to larger classroom sizes.

A new law signed by Governor Ducey in July will likely expand the ranks of under-qualified teachers. The law allows people still working on their college degrees to begin teaching in public schools, as Axios reported.

Republican Lawmakers and Governor Failed to Resolve Spending Cap

It would seem the state legislature’s passage of around $800 million in new ongoing funds for public schools would allow school administrators to boost salaries and attract applicants.

But a constitutional spending cap places a cloud of uncertainty over districts. Unlike charter schools, districts are constrained by the aggregate expenditure limit (AEL), a cap on the state’s funding formula that became law in 1980.

Education advocates say the law is outdated and legislators from both parties acknowledge the cap, in certain years, prohibits schools from spending dollars they are rightly allocated.

Two-thirds of legislators in both chambers are required to lift the cap for one year, something that occurred earlier this year. Current conditions in Arizona make it likely the cap will need to be lifted annually and bipartisan lawmakers agree the legislature can’t continue the cycle. Despite repeated pleas this year from Democratic lawmakers for the legislature to repeal the AEL altogether, Governor Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers did not address the matter.

The failure of the governor and lawmakers to repeal the spending cap means school districts are in a precarious position of being told they will have money to spend that has not been legally approved.

The legislature will need to hold a special session this year to lift the cap or the new legislature and new governor in 2023 will need to address the issue once again.

There is concern the legislature could go back on its word in 2023 and cause chaos for school district finances.

“It’s an unnecessary worry and stress for our school leaders,” said Hoffman, who also urged the legislature to repeal the law.

Disagreement on whether school districts can boost salaries now

Leaders within the education community disagree on how school districts should respond to the spending cap dilemma.

“We have continually pushed our members, our unions, and even school board members to spend the money. They passed the budget. It includes money for our schools. They should be able to spend it,” said Marisol Garcia, President of the Arizona Education Association, nonprofit representing teachers.

Garcia said since the legislature’s new budget was passed in June, some school districts have raised salaries “from 2% to 8%.” But it’s not clear how many school districts are taking those steps.

The executive director of an association representing school administrators says district leaders he communicates with are not boosting their salary structures because of uncertainty over the AEL.

“Districts would have a serious financial problem if they overcommit,” said Dr. Paul Tighe of the AZSPAA.

Ducey did not make solving the spending cap a priority

A spokesperson for Governor Ducey says Ducey does not take a position on whether to repeal the AEL and will not comment on whether he will call a special legislative session this year to address it.

That means the governor signed a budget for school districts, but he is not willing to take steps to ensure the budget has the best chance of coming to fruition.

In a written statement to 12 News, Ducey spokesman CJ Karamargin said the governor is proud of “record investments in education that have been made over the past eight years.”

“This year's historic bipartisan budget agreement puts school districts in an excellent position to really move the needle in recruiting and retaining their educator workforce. Our expectation is that they seize this opportunity,” the statement reads.

In response to Ducey’s statement, Tighe says unless Ducey and the legislature repeal the AEL, districts are taking a “high risk” by assuming funds will be available.

“It’s very fiscally irresponsible because you can’t overspend,” Tighe said.

Majority leader Toma won’t commit to lifting the cap

Republican Representative Michelle Udall, who voted yes on the budget, told 12 News she expects the legislature to lift the AEL next year. But like many legislators, Udall will not be at the capitol next year to follow through. She is running for state superintendent.

“I believe it would be a mistake to appropriate this money only to later take it back via the AEL,” Udall said.

Asked if he will ensure that money for schools passed this year is made available next year if he is re-elected, House Majority leader Ben Toma (R) did not give a definitive yes or no answer.

“Near the end of the year, ADE will inform lawmakers on how much schools exceed (the AEL limit). After which, the legislature will need to address the issue, just as the legislature did this past year. Until then, it remains unclear by how much the legislature should vote to allow them to exceed,” Toma said in a written statement to 12 News.

Education finance consultant Anabel Aportela said school district leaders are in a bind.

“If you are an optimist, you are budgeting it and planning for it,” Aportela said. “But you would hope everyone is conscious of what could happen and everyone has a plan B.”

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