At his age, 64-year-old state Sen. Al Melvin (R-LD26) could only “tell you the truth.”
About 75 people met the Republican at Oro Valley Town Hall for one of six meetings Melvin held with constituents throughout the district last Saturday.
A majority of the Oro Valley crowd opposed $133 million in fiscal 2009 cuts to K-12 education proposed by the GOP-led Legislature.
The state’s public schools face as much as $900 million in proposed cuts in fiscal 2010, though federal stimulus dollars could lessen the impact.
Melvin sought to quell the anger in the room.
“You hear this 49th number, (Arizona) is 49th in the country in per-pupil funding,” Melvin said, referring to recent Education Week rankings of state school spending. “It’s a deafening drumbeat.”
The state senator doubted the veracity of that measurement, however.
“I’m here to give you the straight story as I see it in Phoenix, rather than in some of the things you see in the press,” Melvin told the crowd.
According to a handout the senator provided at the March 7 meeting, the state ranks near the middle of the pack nationwide when it comes to teachers’ salaries. Arizona students in 2008 were ranked 33rd in the nation in overall academic achievement, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“You’re using discredited figures, sir,” said Kirt Ijans, a Northwest businessman.
Others in the audience echoed Ijans’ criticism.
“You have your numbers and we have ours,” Melvin responded.
The senator said the cuts to K-12 education were necessary, in part, to help close an estimated $1.6-billion shortfall in state revenue in fiscal 2009. More reductions would be required to help mitigate a projected $3.3-billion shortfall in fiscal 2010.
The fiscal 2009 reductions represent about 3 percent of state K-12 education spending.
The Amphitheater Public School District, for instance, saw its state funding reduced by about $1.3 million, or 2 percent, of its fiscal 2009 budget, according to Kurt Barrabee, a member of the district’s governing board.
“But (the cuts) came after 60 percent of the year was done,” Barrabee said.
Others in the room opposed the Legislature’s resistance to resuming a statewide county education equalization property tax.
The tax was suspended by the Legislature for three years in 2006. Education advocates have called for its resumption, which would bring an estimated $250 million a year into state coffers.
“With the public outrage to education cuts … what is the reason for opposing the $250-million equalization tax?” asked Cheryl Cage, a Democrat who last fall ran against Melvin for the open LD26 senate seat.
“I’m in office, Cheryl, you’re not,” Melvin responded.
Ijans, the area businessman, told the senator that a well-educated workforce was key to recruiting businesses to the state.
“Businesses want lower taxes, but they want educated workers more,” Ijans said.
Not all in the audience, however, opposed Melvin’s commitment to lower taxes.
“None of us go to our neighbors and say, ‘Please pay for my kids to go to school,’” said Bart Pemberton, who voted for the Republican.
Pemberton’s comments elicited some grumbles from the crowd.
“The way to fix education is to make schools, like the ones we have in LD26, stronger, and to take schools, like those in (Tucson), have more parental choice,” Melvin said.
The senator favors retaining the state’s education tax credit, which he said benefits private and parochial schools and some public districts. To get rid of that, Melvin said, for which residents can designate a portion of their income taxes to fund schools, “would be an unmitigated disaster.”