School board OKs budget, debates crossing guards

School board members AnnaMarie Knorr (left) and Torri Anderson (right) across board President Patti Coutre debate paying for crossing guards, a duty shared among teachers and staff, during Wednesdays meeting of the MUSD Governing Board. Photo by Ethan McSweeney

By Ethan McSweeney

At its final meeting of the 2015-16 school year, the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board approved the budget for the upcoming year, increased salaries for health workers and new crossing guard positions.

The approved $40.6 million budget for the 2016-17 school year includes virtually no changes from the proposed budget presented to the board last month. New spending in the budget includes a 3.9 percent base salary increase for all employees, an annual bonus for staff and 25 added positions, including teachers, a security officer and a nurse.

Much of the new spending comes as the district takes in about $3.5 million in additional revenue from the state with the passage of Proposition 123, which Arizona voters approved in May, and inflation funding. Proposition 123 allows Arizona to tap into the State Land Trust to give districts an additional $3.5 billion over the next 10 years to settle a lawsuit from the school districts that contended the state underfunded them during the recession years.

At the meeting Wednesday night, the MUSD governing board also voted to approve a 15-percent base salary increase for health service staff at Maricopa schools. The board earlier approved adding an extra nursing position as part of the budget process, bringing the district total from seven to eight.

MUSD Superintendent Steve Chestnut said the pay boost is needed to increase retention among nursing staff, which experiences high turnover. MUSD currently has openings for four registered nurses across the district.
“We’ve had a lot of nurses come and go over the years,” Chestnut said.

“One of the reasons is that our salaries are lower than our neighbors,” he added. “The other challenge is that we have a high special ed. population that tends to put additional pressure on the nursing department.”

With those four openings for nurses, the district is looking to fill 15 positions total — six of those being classroom positions.

“We have backup plans if we can’t fill them all,” Chestnut said.

Board Member Torri Anderson said the openings Maricopa has are small when compared to other districts in metro Phoenix. She added many of the teachers being hired at MUSD also live in Maricopa, which helps to increase retention.

A request from Butterfield Elementary School for four crossing guards led to a lengthy discussion among board members about the need for the positions and whether the district should pay for them.

The four crossing guards at Butterfield were requested by the school’s principal Janel Hildick because of concerns for student safety when trying to cross streets around the school. Half of the $35,000 to $42,000 for the crossing guards, who would also work as playground monitors, would come out of Butterfield’s site budget. The other half of the funding would come from the district’s maintenance and operation budget.

“We’re probably looking at two intersections that may be the worst in the district for kids trying to cross,” said Tom Beckett, MUSD director of human resources. “We have an awful lot of walkers. It’s just a real challenge. We as a district feel this is a safety issue to a point where we need to address this.”

Chestnut added Butterfield has received the most concern for student safety on the busy roads around the school. Currently, teachers and staff members share crossing guard duties at the school.

Board Member AnnaMarie Knorr said by approving the request from one school might prompt other schools to come to the district for any extra staff they might need. She added teachers and staff at other schools would still need to be taking up crossing guard duty.

“It worries me that we’re going to set ourselves up for other schools going, ‘Well, why do they get this?’” Knorr said. “We’ve also had other schools in budget committee ask for specific things that we haven’t given them.”

Anderson said she understood the concerns but the Butterfield crossing guards are necessary because there is need for them now.

“I think that we need to support, as a board and as a district, the safety of our students,” she said.

The board approved creating the four crossing guard/playground monitor positions at Butterfield and adding the district-wide job description for the position for other schools that may ask for crossing guards, too.