Re-emphasizing academics over athletics, the Amphitheater Public Schools Governing Board at its March 25 meeting approved attendance-directed eligibility requirements for students taking part in extracurricular activities.

Superintendent Vicki Balentine also presented the board with suggestions for program and staff reductions in the coming fiscal year to counteract a potential budget shortfall of more than $3.2 million the district would face if measures currently being proposed by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee come to pass.

Only two weeks earlier the estimated shortfall was less than half that amount at $1.6 million.

Under the revised eligibility requirements to be implemented next fall, students will be prohibited from taking part in Arizona Interscholastic Association activities for at least four-and-a-half weeks if they fail to maintain at least a C average on their quarterly or semester progress reports or start the semester or school year with an overall grade point average below a C.

Students who bring their grades up to that average would be eligible to participate in the fifth week.

Currently, teachers check the grades of those students who were failing at the end of the quarter on a weekly basis. Students can regain eligibility within a week if they earn passing grades. Students who have failed a class at the end of a semester can only compete again by earning passing grades within three weeks of the next semester.

The revised policy, approved by the board on a 4-1 vote with Boardmember Jeff Grant dissenting, eliminates automatic ineligibility for a year for disciplinary problems and leaves it up to the governing board or hearing officers to determine what the period of ineligibility should be.

A student who has had an unexcused absence cannot practice or play that day. Doing so would make the student ineligible for the next competition.

Board Vice President Kent Barrabee defended the revised board policy extending the minimum time for a student to regain academic eligibility from one week to four-and-a-half weeks.

"If it takes a student nine weeks to fall below the minimum grade point average necessary, I don't think it's healthy for the student to think in terms of 'Gee, if I can just work a week and get one grade up here and one grade up there and get a teacher to increase my grade a little bit.'

"I just don't think that's a healthy perspective for students to have in their academic career," Barrabee said. "A far better way is the way it's proposed. It's a broader approach and requires a broader approach on the part of the student. It also provides a broader opportunity for really helping students bring up their general performance rather than just trying to kick up one grade to qualify."

Amphi Athletic Director Michael Bejarano also was hopeful the stricter attendance requirements would provide an incentive for students in making them realize that by spending more time in class their chances of getting better grades improve and they are less at risk of losing the opportunity to play.

"Where we're coming from, we're trying to get people to graduate," echoed Boardmember Mike Prout, emphasizing the board's view of extracurricular activities as just that for the student who is struggling academically and of the revised policies as having a "very positive impact for motivation."

On the budget side, Superintendent Vicki Balentine presented the board with a list of 14 possible budget cuts totaling nearly $3.5 million that might have to be implemented to offset the $3.24 million in budget cuts being proposed by the JLBC.

Less than two weeks before the meeting, Balentine had warned the board and members of the public that if measures then before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee were to pass, the district would be looking at a $1.6 million shortfall.

Constance Cigliana, Amphi's chief financial officer, said the deeper budget shortfall is due in large part to more recent figures showing district enrollment 200 students below previously estimated, costing the district more than $1 million, or $5,000 per student, in state funds, and higher life insurance costs.

Although figures coming out of the JLBC appear to be changing on a daily basis, district administrators said, data at the time of the meeting indicated that if the JLBC budget passed, Amphi's 2003-2004 general maintenance and operations budget limit would be $71.6 million.

The limit is established by the state for each school district based on student counts, teacher experience, special needs students and other formulae.

The limit was based on a JLBC budget giv ing Amphi a 2 percent increase for transportation only, cutting teacher experience index funds by 50 percent and reducing Career Ladder funding by 4.5 percent.

Amphi is estimating its 2003-2004 operations and maintenance budget will total nearly $75 million, resulting in the $3.24 million shortfall.

To meet that shortfall, Balentine presented to the board a prioritized list of possible cuts for the 2003-2004 fiscal year that includes reductions in alternative education costs, special needs transportation, the elimination of eight full-time employees on the groundskeeping staff, the elimination of field trips and changes in student-teacher ratios that would eliminate 49 positions, including 34.5 full-time equivalent positions in art, music and physical education programs.

Even without the severe JLBC cuts, Amphi would be facing a potential $861,873 shortfall with a general budget limit of slightly more than $74 million and costs of $74.9 million.

"Clearly there is a crisis here and in the state," John Lewandowski, president of Amphitheater Education Association teachers' union, told the board. "I would like the association to work closely with the district to help get through this.

"My whole thing is that in the upcoming weeks we may not agree, that is the teachers and the school board, on how money should be allocated, but my hope is that we can keep the dialogue going and keep negotiations open and not negotiate in public and in the press.

"A lot of these items on the list are items that need to go through negotiations and I hope you allow them to go through the process before making any changes."

Tom Moser, a teacher at Painted Sky Elementary School, told the board in his opinion "the news is far worse than what you're seeing right now" because consumers are still spending and the state has yet to experience a sales tax revenue problem.

He distinguished between school districts in the state as "haves and have nots," the haves being those districts which recognize economics rather than politics as their major problem.

Those haves, Moser said, are addressing that problem through budget overrides, which he encouraged Amphi's board to explore as a means of giving the district a cushion to address finances "prudently, carefully, with a comprehensive plan."

"There are so many ideas out there, but we don't seem to have time to look at these ideas” for economic stability, Moser said. "It's next year, next year, next year and the cuts keep getting deeper and deeper."

Prout thanked Balentine and her staff for coming up with specific figures and proposals the board can refer to as a starting point and the public can become aware of "so that people in the district, employees and families won't be blindsided when this situation is resolved in a way that will hurt. It's hard to see that it will be resolved in a way that doesn't hurt, at least to some extent, so I think it's important we talk about it and have rational discussions and we start establishing some priorities that we all can agree are the right decisions."

Commenting on bills currently passing through the Legislature, both Barrabee and Boardmember Patricia Clymer were especially critical of a Senate-passed bill allowing up to a $100,000 tax credit for donations toward tuition at private schools for students qualified for free or reduced cost lunch programs.

Critics say the measure will take millions of dollars out of the general fund for public education that will have to be made up elsewhere.

"I just can't think of a more intense slap in the face than this type of legislation," Barrabee said. "I just see this as a gross failure of the state to recognize its responsibility to public education. Worse than that, it seems to me, is the deliberate attempt to undermine public education and it disturbs me terribly."

Clymer said the measure raises the obvious problem of the state allowing another tax credit at a time when the Legislature doesn't even have enough revenues to cover the state's basic needs.

In other action, the board commended Greater Oro Valley Arts Council President Dick Eggerding, GOVAC boardmembers Bob Weede and Al Cook and Executive Director Carmen Feriend for the group's contribution to art and music education in the district.

Also receiving commendations were Trevor Hall, a seventh grader at Coronado, for being a three-time winner of the Pima County spelling bee and placing sixth in state competition, and Amphi students Roger Foreman and Meghan DeWitt for their academic achievements as Presidential Scholars.

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