Here is an under-reported education fact: K-12 schools in Arizona have received over $1 Billion in new funding from the state over the last two years. This infusion of cash is the largest education spending increase in state history, boosting per pupil funding by 20 percent. Even adjusting for inflation, we are now back to the pre-recession funding levels for education last reached in 2008, which was the previous high water mark for K-12 spending by the state.

One would hope that our policymakers are keeping close tabs on this massive expansion of funding and scrutinizing how our tax dollars are being spent. Instead, it appears that state lawmakers are preparing to skip this step and commit more dollars to K-12, no questions asked.  

Hopefully this attitude will change with news that the largest school district in the state decided to use their K-12 funding boost to go on an administration spending spree:

“Even as teachers were canvassing neighborhoods, fighting to pass a budget override in the state’s largest school district, new documents reveal Mesa Public Schools Governing Board members were handing out hefty bonuses and spending record amounts on administration in the district’s front office.

Budget documents and memoranda obtained by ABC15 show the district’s administrative spending soared more than 42 percent from 2018 to 2019, exceeding its own budget by more than three-quarters of a million dollars.

The new revelations about administrative spending come just a day after the governing board voted to put Superintendent Ember Conley on administrative leave, signaling it is parting ways with the district’s leader, who has only been on the job since March of 2018. The board is expected to buy out the remainder of her contract – a cost which is expected to exceed $500,000.”

A large chunk of the payouts went toward bonuses to employees close to embattled Superintendent Ember Conley. Twelve members of her executive team received $22,500 bonuses, while several others had large amounts put into tax sheltered annuities.

Adding insult to injury is all of this largesse occurred behind the scenes while the district actively pushed for more funding through a budget override. Voters in the East Valley are outraged and one ex-school board member has filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General’s office to investigate the matter.

Taxpayers deserve answers, but it’s unclear if they will ever get any.  At last week’s district meeting, the Mesa school board refused to discuss why Superintend Conley was placed on leave, and provided no explanation as to why the district spending spree was hidden from the public. They did, however, attempt to defend the payouts and declared that exceeding the approved administration budget wasn’t really an issue.

The lack of candor isn’t surprising given the current political environment surrounding K-12 funding. There is tremendous hubris among the education establishment, based on the belief that policymakers are afraid to hold them accountable.

That is how you end up with several education groups openly bickering on what tax hikes (sales, property, income, all of the above?) to send to the ballot in 2020. It appears they have concluded it is politically unnecessary to explain how the additional $20,000 per classroom provided by the state has been spent or justify why a tax increase is required given the news that Arizona has amassed a $500 Million (and growing) budget surplus for next year.  

The only way this cycle ends is if Governor Ducey and the State Legislature send a clear signal that future K-12 appropriations will be tied to results, accountability and reform. If they don’t, then taxpayers should expect more demands for additional education spending and higher taxes with no explanations or expectations that it is being used wisely.