Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0209casinomoney09.html

Funds from tribes' casinos help school districts
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 9, 2004 12:00 AM
Sarah Anchors

When you drop a quarter into an Arizona slot machine, money trickles into Tempe's Bustoz Elementary School, where reading coach Jane Clevenger can spend a few more hours helping children write sentences.

The quarters and dollars find their way into bonus checks for teachers at Murphy Elementary School District.

Casino money also pays for teacher Natalie Espinosa to help Shadow Mountain High School students retake courses they failed on computers.

Other school districts are waiting for the money to grow before making promises to teachers or starting programs.

The money is from a proposition voters approved in November 2002 that allowed tribes to offer Las Vegas-style blackjack and add slot machines. In return, casinos send a percentage of money from gaming machines to the state Department of Education four times a year.

Arizona tribes have made three payments totaling about $9.15 million.

Tribes gave their third contribution for schools, about $3.12 million, to the state late last month. The money goes to all public schools, including charters and juvenile corrections centers.

For every $100 poured into a slot machine at a tribal casino, $1 to $8 goes to the state. The tribes pay different percentages based on the amount of money they have made that year. Using a complex formula, the money is divided between schools, local governments, the state Gaming Department, trauma and emergency services, tourism and Arizona wildlife conservation. The education share goes to the Department of Education, which hands out money to districts based on their student count.

Up to half of schools' money may go to boosting teachers' salaries or reducing class size. The other half can go to dropout prevention or programs to improve instruction, such as reading classes.

Some schools are already using the money.

In the Tempe Elementary School District, part of the money will pay for teachers to attend a day of training. The rest will pay for schools to hire full-time reading coaches instead of part-time ones. Jane Clevenger now works a full day at Bustoz to help classroom teachers use different methods to teach students to read.

"There was no consistency," Clevenger said. "You can't teach essay writing and be there every other day."

On a recent Wednesday, she helped a teacher and second-grade students practice arranging sentences, and older students, many of whom are learning English, change true stories they wrote into fictional ones.

In the Paradise Valley Unified School District, half the money will go to teachers' salaries.

The district hired teachers at five high schools to help students work on computer programs to pass courses they failed. Before, when students at Shadow Mountain High School failed Algebra I, they sometimes moved right on to Algebra II, Assistant Principal Bob Rossi said.

"That drove me crazy," he said.

This semester, students listen to instructors on headphones and complete exercises and tests online. Natalie Espinosa helps, too.

"I try to look for someone who has been sitting for a few minutes with the same problem," she said. "We sit together and break it down or I encourage one of their peers to work with them."

The remainder of the money will pay for eight new aides to help students in middle schools move from English as a second language classes into regular classes. Patrick Sweeney, principal at Vista Verde Middle School, said about 10 percent of his students are in classes to learn English.

"One role of the aide is to keep a commitment going with parents and provide support, academic tutoring, monitoring homework and maybe going into the classroom," Sweeney said.

But other school districts haven't touched a dime of the money allotted to them.

One reason is that the money is not a huge windfall. For example, Kyrene School District has received a couple hundred thousand dollars. That's not much compared with the district's $86 million operating budget, said Gail Anderson, director of business services.

Tim Ham, assistant superintendent of business services at Creighton Elementary School District, said it would take millions of dollars to lower class sizes enough to help students learn better.

"A hundred thousand (dollars) may buy you 2 1/2 teachers, maybe three," Ham said.

Another reason that some districts have not used the money yet is that officials did not know much money was coming their way.

Tribal contributions fluctuate depending on how much money they have made so far that year. And tribes use different calendars, said Christa Severson, Gaming Department spokeswoman.

She said contributions are expected to rise as tribes add slot machines.

The variation has left school officials uncertain.

Tom Elliott, assistant superintendent for administrative services for the Cave Creek Unified School District, said district officials did not commit the money because they did not know how much they could count on.

"We decided to lay low and wait to see the pattern," Elliott said.

District business officials say districts will decide how to use the money when they write budgets in spring for the next school year.

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