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AZ schools are responsible for funding confusion. What records show

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State Education Secretary Tom Horne said principals only have themselves to blame for their confusion if they felt blindsided by a March email about cuts to federal funding, including funds set aside for schools with high proportions of students living in poverty.

The Arizona Department of Education has sent numerous emails to every school district and charter school in the state over the course of several months warning of impending cuts, Horne and another department official told the Arizona State Board of Education last month during a heated meeting in which school leaders vented their frustration and asked the board for help.

Communication records suggest that these claims were untrue.

Emails obtained through a public records request show that the same March email that sparked an outcry among educators was also the first communication sent to all districts and charter schools on the issue, with only a subsequent mass email mentioning cuts.

School officials said they have already begun planning for next year, assuming funding would remain relatively stable, and are not adequately prepared for the 20 percent drop in funding. The funds are used to pay for teaching positions, interventions, free meals, transportation and programs that help low-income students.

The ministry stressed that it had communicated consistently.

“This is not a legal dispute and we will not analyze every phone call, email or in-person conversation,” department spokesman Doug Nick said in an email. “Every district and charter in the state knows how to contact us for any reason and if any of them have an issue, we will be happy to resolve it.”

The Ministry of Education informed some, but not all, schools about funding cuts

The federal government provides funds known as “title” funding to support schools in certain ways.

Title funds help with teacher training, English language learner programs, educational technology, creating opportunities for a well-rounded education, student health and safety, and college and career counseling programs. A key component of federal funding, Title I is designed to help schools ensure that students living in poverty meet academic standards.

State education departments disburse title funds to qualified schools. Provisional amounts are released in the spring before being adjusted—usually upward—and finalized in the following months.

This spring, schools faced two simultaneous title funding problems.

Most schools have been struggling with drastic cuts in provisional funding for the next school year. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that the share of Arizona's population living in poverty fell by about 7% this year. A state's relative poverty is a major factor in how some federal funds are distributed across the country, resulting in less money being allocated to Arizona.

And in February, some schools were forced to make significant adjustments to their final funding amounts for the current school year as the school year neared its end. A handful of charter schools and districts, mostly in rural areas, saw tens of thousands of dollars disappear from their accounts without explanation.

Horne said they should have seen it coming.

“This incident makes a good case for consolidation because all of these complaints came from small districts, and they just don't have economies of scale and therefore competent administration,” Horne told The Republic in April. “None of the large districts are confused because they read our emails. But these people clearly haven't read our emails.”

According to Jon Lansa, senior director of grants and federal programs for the Tucson Unified School District, the department has been communicating with school leaders for months about expected cuts in title funding for the current and next school year. Tucson is one of the largest school districts in Arizona, with more than 45,000 students.

During a title financing conference in Phoenix in January, the department gave detailed presentations on the financing that Lansa said helped prepare for possible upcoming cuts.

But communication has been done exclusively through one-on-one meetings and presentations in Phoenix. Lansa said he has shared information with some neighboring counties that lack the resources to attend meetings outside the city because of their size.

“And these are, like, medium-sized counties. Smaller counties? They would have had no idea anything was going on because there was no communication,” Lansa said. “I would imagine smaller counties were completely shocked when the wrong numbers came out in February.”

Superintendent Carolyn Stewart, whose Bullhead City school district serves about 2,300 students, said Horne's communications with rural schools were “often ambiguous and unsupportive.” In a letter to the State Board of Education, Stewart criticized the fact that workshops and other support for rural school leaders often take place in Phoenix and there is no way to attend virtually. That's an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, she said.

“Superintendent Horne's response to criticism of the Title funding situation by attributing the impact on schools to administrative incompetence and linking that to the need to consolidate school districts was insulting and counterintuitive,” Stewart wrote. “Cutting funding near the end of a fiscal year without discussing it first does not reflect poorly on the administrator who developed and effectively managed the budget for the year; it changes the rules near the end of the game and blames the opponent for the loss.”

What emails has the Department of Education sent regarding federal funding?

Horne's top official in charge of allocating title funding, Chris Brown, the economic officer for education programs, told the State Board of Education during its April meeting that he sent more than 200 emails explaining what was happening with title funding and made the pitch dozens of times. “At least eight or nine” of those emails went to every district and charter school on their mailing list, he said.

The Republic requested the eight or nine emails Brown was referring to. The department responded with a list of 13 emails, the first of which was sent on February 21. Those emails included:

  • Updated guidance on writing grant applications.
  • Three notifications that the final title allocation for the 2023-24 school year has been delayed and a fourth announcing their release on March 12.
  • One estimate is that provisional funding for the 2024-25 school year will be released on March 1.
  • An announcement that applications are open for a scholarship for structured English immersion classes.
  • Details of a randomized federal survey on schools' use of title funds.
  • Emails announcing title funding releases and adjustments for 2024–25.

Only two emails discussed the expected cut in state title funding. The first email was sent on March 15, according to department records, but school administrators said they did not receive the message until March 7.

The second email was sent more than two weeks later in response to Republic's reporting.

“I'm just very disappointed,” said Victor Hugo Rodriguez, spokesman for the Cartwright Elementary School District, whose district was among those directly accused by Horne of not checking their emails. “He's trying to make it sound like there was open communication and makes it look like the districts failed, when in reality he doesn't want to take responsibility.”

Changes in Arizona Department of Education Communications

A week after the contentious Education Committee meeting, the department's Title I advocacy group, known as the Committee of Practitioners, held its own meeting where officials detailed possible ways to improve communication. Committee members include applicants for federal grants for schools, some of whom have been frustrated with this year's process.

Sarka White, the director of the Education Department's Title I program, said an analysis of the department's email distribution list for title funding found that only 225 people signed up for the communications. There are more than 600 school districts and charter schools, meaning the department's primary method of communication is “not even close” to reaching the entire target audience, she said.

The burden of finding the email list and signing up for it falls on school leaders, White said. When new staff members start, they may not even know there is an email list they need to sign up for.

In addition, about a fifth of all charter schools and districts were missing contact information, had outdated information or contained spelling errors in the department's grant management system, White said.

Internal communication within schools is also to blame, she said, as some school administrators may not pass on information to the rest of their team when they receive it.

“I have to find the gaps so we can close them,” White said. “For someone to say they are not informed, or feel they are not informed and actually not informed enough to make decisions, is unforgivable to me and my team.”

The Practitioners’ Committee has set up a subcommittee to help improve communication structures in the future.

White said her focus will be on getting each charter and district to sign up for the appropriate email list and expanding the dissemination of information. She also acknowledged that the department did not always send mass messages to schools, but instead conducted one-on-one conversations, a practice she has since corrected.

Brown told the committee that he would keep a record of all adjustments to title allocations and send a notice of what happened each time.

“We need to communicate things more comprehensively, more succinctly and more regularly,” White said. “I really want to have this cleared up by December because I think if our communication is not good, we are doing our schools a disservice.”

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You can reach the reporter at nicholas.sullivan@gannett.com.

Anna Harden

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