Forum speakers explore both sides of Prop. 123

Joe Thomas, left, of the Arizona Education Association, and Morgan Abraham, standing, chairman of the Vote No on Prop. 123 committee, show their emotions while discussing the controversial measure. (Wendy Miller/Independent Newspapers)

Joe Thomas and Morgan Abraham say they agree schools need to be funded. And they say on May 18, the day after a special election to decide the fate of Proposition 123, they’ll be on the same side, working to make sure Arizona schools receive the funding they need to provide their students with a quality education.

But until then, they will disagree whether Proposition 123 is the best way to get that money, both said during a public forum held April 21 in Apache Junction.

Mr. Thomas is the incoming president of the Arizona Education Association. Mr. Abraham is a Tucson Realtor and chairman of the Vote No on Prop. 123 committee.

The men were invited to the forum by the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon Save Our Schools organization to express their viewpoints on the proposition and its effects on local educational funding going forward.

Proposition 123 would fund K-12 schools and charter schools $3.5 billion over a 10-year period without raising taxes. The money would come from the State Land Trust, where proceeds from sold lands go mostly toward K-12 education. The measure would increase the land trust withdrawal rate to 6.9 percent from 2.5 percent for 10 years.

Proposition 123 is a compromised settlement after schools and education groups sued the state, claiming it failed to adjust the base level education funding formula for inflation during the Great Recession as mandated by a previous voter-approved proposition, according to research by Independent reporter Cecilia Chan.

The proposition will allow voters to decide to accept or reject the settlement of inflationary spending payments due to Arizona public schools by the state, according to a press release issued by the SOS group.

Mr. Thomas supports Proposition 123, which he says will reward the teachers who have stood by Arizona children through the recession and will help attract additional experienced educators.

“We had 1,000 classrooms this year across the state that didn’t have a teacher in them. That’s how difficult it is for superintendents to hire people,” he said during the forum.

He called Proposition 123 the best way to get the money into schools. He said if it fails, the state will see an “increased exodus of teachers.”

“That’s what this is about — students and teachers,” he said.

He said the schools are lacking highly qualified teachers and instead are relying on substitute teachers and retired people who “out of the goodness of their heart” serve as guardians in the classroom.

During the forum, George Schroeder of Apache Junction asked how teachers’ salaries would be impacted over the next 10 years.
“I’m telling you right now, things will only get more expensive. We’re going to be in the basement with teachers’ salaries,” he said.
If Proposition 123 passes, teacher salaries will see an average increase of 4 to 6 percent, Mr. Thomas said. He said the amount is sustainable because it will go into a teacher’s base level salary.

Proposition 123 does not stipulate how the funds are to be spent; however, many school districts have indicated they plan to use some of it to reward and attract teachers.

If Proposition 123 passes, the Apache Junction Unified School district would receive an initial payment of about $900,000, Dana Hawman, the school district’s public relations coordinator, said in an e-mailed response to questions. After that, it would receive about $160,000 a year for the 10-year life of the measure.

The school district would use a portion of that money to retain and attract experienced school teachers, Ms. Hawman said.

“Our top priority remains quality education, and that starts with attracting and retaining experienced, quality teachers. If Proposition 123 passes, employees will receive a one-time 2 percent compensation increase. Most neighboring districts are also planning salary increases so this is not expected to close the salary gap between AJUSD and other districts, but it will keep us from falling even further behind,” she said. “Combined with the continuation of the four-day work/school week providing quality-of-life benefits, we hope to retain our highly valued and experienced employees, thereby increasing the quality of instruction and services.”

Queen Creek Unified School District could bring in an additional $1,184,000 beginning with 2015-16, Crystal Korpan, the school district’s chief financial officer, said in an e-mailed response to questions. That includes $950,000 from base level funding increases and $234,000 from additional funding from the State Land Trust funds, Ms. Korpan said.

The money can be used for a variety of things that school districts already use their money for; they include teacher compensation, supplies and operational expenses, as needed, she said.

Mr. Abraham opposes Proposition 123. During the forum he called it, “an irresponsible financial move and a tax on the future.”
In his ballot argument filed with the state, he says money would come out of the State Trust Fund faster than the fund is able to replenish itself through its investment return on sold land.

During the forum he said there is a core group of people at the legislation who fundamentally want to change the way the state funds education.

He said Proposition 123 would raid the State Trust Fund — which is designed to benefit education and the trust funds’ other beneficiaries — by eating away at the principle of the fund.

Mr. Abraham said according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, under the current law, the trust can grow to $9.49 billion by 2026 but Proposition 123 would reduce growth to $6.3 billion.

When the measure expires in 10 years, the money from the trust going towards education will be reduced by about $100 million annually.

“Once we spend that we can never go back,” Mr. Abraham said. “It’s a very expensive thing to do.”

Cyndi Ruehl, executive director of the Superstition Area Land Trust, said during the forum she works with State Land Trust all the time.

She said she is worried there could be a big push to sell state land to make up deficits in the State Trust Fund caused by Proposition 123. She said that could mean selling the land at the foothills of the Superstition Mountains.

Mr. Thomas said Proposition 123 does not mandate the sale of the state trust land; it talks only about the interest earned from it.
Mr. Abraham said it is mathematically impossible to replenish the State Trust Fund if Proposition 123 were to pass.

Early ballots were mailed April 20 for the May 17 special election. For more information, visit the Pinal County Recorder’s Office online at http://www.pinalcountyaz.gov/Pages/Elections.aspx or call 520-866-7550.

In Apache Junction, people may visit the local recorder’s office at 575 N. Idaho Road No. 800. Its phone number is 480-983-7038.

News Editor Wendy Miller can be contacted at 480-982-7799 and via e-mail at qcnews@newszap.com, or follow her on Twitter @WendyNewszap123.

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