State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik

State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik

As Gilbert and other school districts finalize reopening plans, a state lawmaker says a special session of the Arizona Legislature is urgently needed to address funding issues.

State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, hopes lawmakers will reconvene before the schools in her district resume classes on July 22.

Pawlik, whose district includes part of Gilbert, said the COVID-19 pandemic has generated some uncertainty as to whether school districts can expect to receive the same level of funding this coming year since many students may stay home and continue learning online. 

The issue is particularly critical for districts that are adopting so-called “flex models” that split all students’ week between distance learning at home and in the classroom.

So far Gov. Doug Ducey has not indicated if and when he might convene a special session. Lawmakers themselves can call a special session, but that requires a two-thirds majority vote.

While some legislators have indicated a need to convene to address a wide variety of pandemic-related issues, this also is primary election campaign season and it is unclear if legislators would call one before the new school year kicks in.

While Scottsdale Unified and some neighboring districts have not yet announced its reopening plans, Tempe Union last week rolled out two options for parents and students – either a flex model or all-online.

Surveys recently done by some East Valley districts indicate some parents are worried about their child contracting COVID-19 and plan to keep them home during the fall semester.

But beyond parent and student preferences, superintendents are voicing increasing concerns about the rising number of virus cases in Arizona.

Of particular concern is the safety of teachers and other staffers, some of whom are in high-risk categories for contracting the coronavirus.

  Arizona presently pays districts based on the number of students who physically show up to school each day or by those who enroll in a certified online school.

 Students who spent these last couple months learning from home by emailing and calling their teachers, theoretically, wouldn’t get counted under the state’s current funding structure, Pawlik said. 

That could have a major fiscal impact on a school district’s budget. 

Pawlik, a teacher herself, said the state needs to urgently address this funding gap by ensuring that all students learning from home during the pandemic will get counted. 

“We need to have a way to fund the students who are learning at home because we know the teachers are reaching out, we know the kids are getting some education,” she said.

School districts with an existing online program get paid for every student they have enrolled, but Pawlik noted how funding for online programs is lower than what districts get paid for in-person instruction. 

Furthermore, the Arizona Board of Education must review and authorize any online programming before school districts can enroll students into them. 

When schools started closing back in March, the held districts harmless by continuing to fund them through the end of the school year without many changes.

 But there has been no action to address the upcoming school year, Pawlik said.

Republican and Democrats have been looking at various ways to change the funding structures, Pawlik said.

She added that lawmakers have been breaking off into working groups to examine how at-home students can be counted the same as classroom students. 

She hasn’t heard of anyone opposing the possibility of expanding the law’s definition, but Pawlik said it may not be long before some political gridlock starts to form.  

“I feel like oftentimes there’s opposition to any idea that’s offered,” she said. 

Gov. Doug Ducey could also issue some sort of executive order on the matter, Pawlik added, stating she has not been advised if the governor’s planning to do this in the near future.