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Arizona State Superintendent asks Gov. Ducey to resolve education spending cap

Superintendent Kathy Hoffman pleaded with Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special session regarding the funding cap on schools.

ARIZONA, USA — Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is making a plea to Governor Doug Ducey and state leaders to call a special session now to lift a funding cap on schools. 

The Aggregated Expenditure Limit (AEL) is preventing many school district finance officials from fully budgeting for employee raises and other expenses, school representatives said.

“It makes zero sense to pass a historic education budget one day only to turn around and make school officials fight to spend the money the next day,” Hoffman said.

AEL is an 'antiquated policy'

In her letter, Hoffman thanked Ducey and legislators for passing the historic bipartisan budget that boosts per-pupil spending between $380 to $480 and provides other funding. But Hoffman said she’s increasingly concerned about the AEL in light of a tight labor market and a “dire teacher shortage.” 

As 12News reported last week school districts are scrambling to fill teaching positions and dealing with unusually high vacancies.

“This antiquated policy once again threatens to derail districts’ plans to spend the funding appropriated in this year’s budget,” Hoffman stated in the letter. “District leaders are wary of overcommitting funds to provide educators with desperately needed pay increases without knowing if they will have the authority to spend the dollars throughout the school year.”

RELATED: Republican Arizona lawmaker threatens school funding 'war'

Ducey and Fann encourage schools to spend

Ducey had not responded publicly to Hoffman’s request as of late Tuesday.

Last week a spokesperson for Ducey told 12News the governor will not comment on the possibility of a special session, but he encouraged schools to spend.

“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,” said Ducey spokesperson CJ Karamargin in an email.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann also said schools should spend the money.

“For the past 40 years since voters approved the AEL, the Legislature has always made sure school districts were able to spend the money that has been allocated to them,” Fann said in a written statement to 12News. “We came up with a solution last year. Districts had no problems creating their budgets. They will be taken care of again next year and in the coming years.”

One problem is both Ducey and Fann will not be in office next year. Absent a special session, they are telling schools to trust future lawmakers who will be in power. 

One Republican, Senator David Livingston, already threatened “there would be war” over school funding next year if a separate signature petition drive is successful in September involving the school voucher expansion law.

Fann’s claim that districts “had no problems creating their budgets” is not entirely accurate, administration officials tell 12News.

“It’s really hard for districts to budget and expend funds if they are not certain the funds are available legally to spend,” said Paul Tighe, Executive Director of the Arizona School Administrators Association.

District leaders and school boards are left to make decisions on their own. Some districts are not worrying about the AEL and boosting salaries by as much as 8 percent," said Marisol Garcia, President of the Arizona Education Association.

An employee of another large district in the Valley tells 12News that district leaders are ignoring the AEL and planning a 7 percent raise for teachers and a $2,600 stipend. The employee asked not to be named because the school board has yet to vote on the proposal.

RELATED: Arizona charter schools offering 16% raises. Here's why other schools can't do the same.

Rios says Ducey already agreed to a special session

State Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios told 12News on Tuesday she was informed by Republican leadership that Ducey has already committed to calling for a special legislative session this year to resolve the AEL. 

According to Rios, during the final 24 hours of budget negotiations in June, Democrats provided Republicans a list of demands, including K-12 spending.

“When they came back with the counter (offer), they essentially gave us everything we asked for and added that the governor had committed to holding a special session after the election to address the aggregate expenditure limit,” Rios said. “Everybody was under the impression, and I remain under the impression that it will happen. I fully believe the governor’s office and his staff, and I think it’s critical, especially because we don’t know the makeup of the legislature next session.”

Rios said she commends Ducey and his staff for making the commitment and “has no reason to believe they won’t follow through on that.”

12News has not yet received a response from Ducey to Rios’ claims.

Fann supports 'fixing' the AEL permanently

When the legislature voted to lift the AEL in February for the 2021-2022 school year, Senate President Fann acknowledged the constitutional spending limit, passed by voters in 1980, was outdated. Fann said it’s more expensive to run schools now and lawmakers needed to “fix” the AEL during the session.

“Let’s not do this year after year after year. Let’s come up with a bipartisan solution,” Fann said. “I pray to God we can do it for our kids’ sake and our parents’ sake.”

But fixing the AEL never gained traction.

In her statement to 12News, Fann said lawmakers don’t have plans to address the AEL again this year.

“It will be up to the newly elected Legislature and Governor to come up with a solution during the next legislative session,” Fann said.

The legislature would need a two-thirds vote to hold a special session. However, the governor could order the legislature into a special session and request lawmakers tackle the issue.

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

Hoffman: Repudiate talk of 'retaliatory budget cuts'

Fann accused Hoffman of using “scare tactics” by sending the letter.

“This is purely a political tool created by her, and she knows it’s totally misleading,” Fann said.

Asked whether Livingston’s “war” comment is a scare tactic, Fann responded she tries not to comment on what other legislators say.

Hoffman said fears among school district leaders are real because if the legislature does not raise the spending cap “it will mean closed schools and teacher layoffs.”

“I urge each of you to repudiate talk of retaliatory budget cuts, schedule a special legislative session as soon as possible to resolve this issue in the short-term, and refer a permanent repeal of the AEL to the 2024 ballot for voters to have the final say,” Hoffman wrote.

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