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 affect 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 2 – Joe Howard, Superintendent, Prescott Unified School District


Expect More Arizona’s Northern Arizona Community Engagement Manager Jennifer Hernandez, a Prescott resident, recently sat down with Joe Howard 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.

DECLINING ENROLLMENT GIVES DISTRICT A BAD IMAGE

Prescott Unified School District is a rural Arizona school district located in a community where the median age of all residents is 56, more than 50 percent higher than the median age of all Arizonans.

As a result of the demographics of the area, Prescott Unified has experienced declining student enrollment, which impacts the image of the district among residents. Mr. Howard has also had to face difficult decisions from a funding perspective.

“We took a hard look at our last 10 to 15 years and learned we are losing about a hundred kids a year. As a community, we’ve been through a lot and many were placing blame on the school district for not doing a good job. About six years ago, we hit rock bottom with a lack of support from the community.”

Knowing how amazing the district, staff and students are, Mr. Howard and his team have been working hard to showcase all of the good things happening at their schools. The district has a very strong academic focus and its graduates do very well post-high school. They learned they were mostly losing families who were moving elsewhere due to economic hardships, so the overall student population is smaller.

They decided to take advantage of the large population of retirees and launched a volunteer program five years ago. More than 800 area residents have helped with a variety of projects on school campuses, including reading and math tutoring, chaperoning field trips and helping out with extracurricular and afterschool activities. This has created an incredible bond between retirees and students and school staff.

“The question that I’ve been asking a lot is, can we be both a retirement community AND a family community? Because over the years we have been a strong family community and people like myself, who grew up here, move back to raise our kids here. My goal is to see not only Money Magazine saying that we’re number one for retirement in the nation, but how about Family Circle magazine naming Prescott as the best place in America to raise your kids?”

WHAT DOES DECLINING ENROLLMENT MEAN?

Prescott Unified has unique challenges. With only 39 to 50 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch in most years, the rate is too low to receive additional federal funds. They also do not get small school funding like a lot of other Arizona rural school districts. Those extra funding triggers can provide a significant bump in the overall budget. Therefore, the district’s per pupil funding falls in the middle of the pack.

“Our biggest issue is that we are declining school district. There are no safety nets with current year funding. It’s a guessing game. What we’ve learned to do is build up a carry forward budget plan, so that we don’t have to cut mid-year if we have less students than we thought we’d have.”

In simple terms, declining enrollment means a district has less students year-over-year. Fewer students often means less infrastructure is needed. For example, an easy cut to make would be if there weren’t enough social studies students to warrant eight social studies teachers, so the district cuts back to seven. But very often it’s not that simple.

“It’s not like 30 kindergartners leave and then we can easily cut one kindergarten teacher. You have to find a way to make cuts across the board. However, if you watch growing school districts, they are building buildings and programs. Obviously anywhere in this world or in business, it is much easier and desirable to be in a growth mode.”

WHY ARE BONDS & OVERRIDES NEEDED?

In 2015, the Prescott community came together to pass a $15 million bond and a 5.1% override. The bond covered capital funding items like buses, technology, computers and repairing school buildings. An override is for staffing needs, which the Prescott Unified governing board used to provide a five percent raise across the board for all educators and staff.

“Our teachers were devastated when the override didn’t pass in 2013. It was less about money and more about feeling like their community didn’t support them after they hadn’t received raises for eight years. And so, when it passed in 2015, we really turned that corner as a community. The money was important, but it’s more the philosophical piece that our staff felt like our community sees that what we’re doing is noble and hardworking. And recognized how the district is doing so much with less. That was huge turning point.”

In 2013, the district included a technology center at the high school as part of the bond election. That election failed terribly because the community didn’t like all the added elements.

“As superintendent, I tend to disagree with that and think we should give our kids everything that we possibly can. However, we listened to the community we came back in 2015 and said, okay, we hear you. We only included the basics and it passed. We’ve paid for buses. We paid for fixing buildings that badly needed it and we’re coming closer and closer to one-to-one technology with our Chrome books and computers. Now, a lot of that also is due to the generosity of our own foundation and also all of the service clubs in Prescott. We have the most generous community!”

CUTS TO CAPITAL FUNDING FOR NEEDED BUILDING MAINTENANCE

“Since the recession, Prescott Unified has lost a million dollars a year in capital funding. Imagine someone in charge of a household who has no way to fix things that are just naturally breaking, such as plumbing or electricity. So you just have to live with those things.”

The $15 million bond we passed in 2015 has helped pay for building maintenance and other repairs that ordinarily would have come from the state’s district additional assistance funds that were frozen in 2008.

“We have always advocated to have flexibility in how we spend the funding we receive from the state. Of our total annual budget, about 80 percent goes towards our people. We are appreciative that the Governor and state legislators are starting to listen and provide funding without specifications on exactly where that money goes, since every district and charter school has different needs.”

Prescott Unified has used the majority of extra funding to pay and reward their staff and educators, rather than tackle vital capital needs. However, they are getting close to having the same issues as before the bond in that they don’t have any cash to pay for school bus repairs or building maintenance.

SURVIVAL MODE – DOING MORE WITH LESS

“The kangaroo rat is native to Arizona and lives in the desert. It doesn’t necessarily need water or food, so it’s learned to live in its environment. And that’s how we are. We do not have what we need for our students. We have learned to be extremely efficient and we’re doing an awesome job. A lot of that is on the backs of our teachers, our hard-working staff members, our families and our community who supports us. But that doesn’t mean it is okay.”

Read our other Roadmap for P-20 Education Funding blogs: