June 21, 2006 - For the third year in a row, the Marana Unified School District anticipates a significant cut in state funding for impoverished and disadvantaged students.

The district relies on Title I money to buy school supplies for deprived children and help others grasp the fundamentals of reading and math.

MUSD expects $721,000 from the state in Title I funds, more than $120,000 less than fiscal 2006 and almost $1 million less than fiscal 2004.

Five elementary schools in the district get most of the money. The schools use the money to pay teachers and aides who help struggling students before and after school.

The funding goes down while the number of students in need increases, said Jean Lewis, the district's state and federal programs director.

At Desert Winds Elementary School, 26 students wait their turn to reap the benefits of Title I-funded reading and math programs. The school employs two teachers and an aide to manage the programs.

"Eventually, we might have to cut staff," Principal Denise Linsalata said.

Thornydale Elementary School will get Title I funds for the second year in a row. The future looks grim beyond this coming school year.

"We went into it knowing our time would be limited and that cuts were coming," Principal Lynette Brunderman said.

Thornydale plans to keep a reading specialist on staff to work with students after school, once the money runs out. The school uses Title I money to tutor fourth through sixth-graders in reading. This past year, 24 students participated in the program at Thornydale, which could get dropped after 2007.

The state determines how much Title I money to give districts based on the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches. The district's poverty level affects the state's decision, too.

"The census really screwed us this time," said district Finance Director Dan Contorno. "They didn't go up to every trailer way out there with the dog barking in the yard. We were really underrepresented."

Increasing residential development also forces the district to take a hit. As more affluent families move into the community and send their kids to Marana schools, the number of students receiving free lunches decreases, as does the district's Title I funding.

Estes Elementary School provides the perfect example. In April 2005, the school had 78 percent of its students getting free and reduced lunches, according to district records. This year, that number plummeted to about 50 percent.

Estes' enrollment has increased from 450 to more than 600 in two years. Many of the new students come from families moving into Gladden Farms, home to some of Marana's fastest-growing neighborhoods. The new students continue to decrease the school's Title I funding.

"We're doing very well with materials, but we never have enough staff to service kids," Principal Rocky Sugameli said. "So we try to service the most needy kids first."

The most needy kids in Marana's 13,000-student school district include more than 100 "homeless" children, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Any child lacking permanent housing because of extreme poverty or lacking a safe and stable living environment qualifies as homeless under the act's broad definition.

Marana schools have 132 "homeless" students, compared to last year's 26. Officials expect that number will continue to rise.

The district this coming school year will use $3,600 of Title I money to buy school supplies for these children. In the past, the district even bought caps and gowns for penniless students to wear during graduation ceremonies.

To help ease the strain of Title I cuts, the district will carry over $100,000 from last year, Contorno said.

The carry-over funds shrink by the hundreds of thousands each year.

This year's impending cuts will mean no new programs or materials. Title I staffing will remain intact, officials said. However, future cuts beginning in 2008 will mean fewer teachers and larger waiting lists, Lewis said.

Thornydale probably will go the way of Marana Middle School, which dropped its Title I funding after several years to leave more money for needy students at the elementary level.

Marana's school district also expects cuts in state funding for drug and safety awareness programs and money for professional teacher development and reducing class sizes.

The MUSD governing board on June 22 will vote on a preliminary budget of $64.8 million, up by slightly more than $1 million from fiscal 2006. Officials won't know the exact budget until the state legislature determines how much to allocate to each district.

"That could be August," Contorno said.

The few increases from last year in MUSD's budget include padded funds for increased bus fuel costs and utilities.

Support staff will get 5-percent raises. The district will apply a 3-percent rate to determine raises for certified staff, including teachers.

The district will hire six teachers and five special education teachers in fiscal 2007. With a bachelor's degree, a starting teacher will earn $30,261 this coming school year.

Last week, the district began interviews for its first-ever research/data director. The position will play a key role in Superintendent Denny Dearden's strategic planning process, meant to simplify and improve school programs.

Contorno earmarked $400,000 for "strategic planning" in the proposed budget, $70,000 of which will pay for the new data person's salary and benefits.

Officials have yet to determine exactly how to spend the remaining $330,000.

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