Despite increased state funding for education in recent years, school districts remain dependent on having budget overrides — and asking voters to pay for the costly habit.
In just about every election cycle there are East Valley school districts asking voters to approve or renew a budget override, a boost to the budget paid for through a secondary property tax.
All 16 school districts in the East Valley have overrides, and seven of those districts will ask voters on Nov. 6 to renew overrides or approve new ones. Two districts — Gilbert and Scottsdale — are seeking approval of two overrides each.
Of the 20 largest school districts in the state, Tucson is the only one that doesn’t have an override, though it does receive a lot of desegregation funding, said Chuck Essigs, spokesman for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
That school districts become reliant on the overrides once they are approved the first time is the “understatement of all time,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association.
“School overrides in Arizona have become really not overrides at all. They are very common,” McCarthy said. “Very few school districts in Maricopa County operate without overrides.”
Budget overrides, which last for seven years, were designed to give school districts some local control on their spending decisions. But most districts use overrides to pay for the same things provided by the state school funding formula: more teachers and higher salaries, according to McCarthy and Essigs.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a local option with providing beyond state funding,” Essigs said. “The issue may be because of low state funding (overrides are) being used for things that should be covered with basic level of funding.”
Essigs said that while state funding has increased each year since 2001 to keep pace with inflation, increases haven’t made up for the 1990s when increases didn’t cover inflation. However, in the last two years the Legislature has provided additional money for no administrative salaries, he said.
A maintenance and operations budget override — one of three types of overrides — allows school districts to increase their state funding by 10 percent.
“I’m not aware of an M&O override that goes to fund onetime expenditures that don’t put a school district in jeopardy of major budget dislocations if you have a failure,” McCarthy said. “For the most part once you pass it you are very much hooked on it.”
That’s the case in Apache Junction Unified School District, where voters rejected an override renewal in May. The district is again asking the community to approve it in November.
Betty Swanson, a spokeswoman for the district, said one of the main reasons the renewal was not approved in May was low voter turnout — only 6.2 percent of registered voters in the district cast ballots. She said another reason some may have voted down the renewal is an increase in assessed property valuations that has raised property taxes.
If it doesn’t pass again, Swanson said, the district will have to scale back its budget. The override is currently about $2.8 million, which would be phased out in thirds — meaning a reduction of about $950,000 the first year, an additional $950,000 the second and in the third year it would be gone.
Swanson said the override helps to fund small class sizes, security, summer school programs, counseling positions, aides, technical support, fine arts programs and athletic programs.
Reductions could be made in any of those areas if the override is eliminated.
“The priority would be to keep as many programs and services (as possible),” she said. “That’s going to depend on availability of funds at that time and what the situation is.”
Ron Reinagel, an Apache Junction resident, didn’t vote for the override in May and doesn’t plan to in November. “I’m just kind of a conservative person that feels government should try to reduce spending rather than increase,” he said.
Reinagel said the district should look at ways to reduce expenses rather than ask for an override.
“They should consider going back, starting from a zerobased budget and reallocate everything to come up with a figure as to actually what they do need,” he said. “I don’t have problem with additional teachers, school programs and things like that — but I’m not convinced that’s where all of the override is going to go.”
Reinagel said he’s concerned the override is being put to voters just six months after it was defeated. “Maybe voters were trying to tell you something,” he said.
McCarthy said that when voters go to the polls they should be aware that the dollar amounts advertised by school districts can change throughout the life of an override.
Approving a 10 percent maintenance and operations override, he said, is approving 10 percent of an unknown number.
“There have been significant increases in funding to K-12 schools in Arizona in the last seven to eight years. Every time the Legislature increases funding, so do overrides,” he said. “You would absolutely think if the Legislature provided school districts more money that it would follow that (the) need for (an) override would decrease. I’m not aware of an instance that’s happened.”
Despite the cost of overrides, some school officials and taxpayers think it’s worth paying for a higher level of education.
“A lot of the things that really are the things we recognize as Gilbert Public Schools show up through (the) override — fine arts programs, teaching of art, teacher salaries — we have become quite competitive with neighboring districts as a result of the override,” said Clyde Dangerfield, assistant superintendent of business services for Gilbert Unified School District.
Deb Carr, a Gilbert parent and member of Citizens for Excellence in Education — a political action committee formed to pass the overrides and a bond in November — said the community can’t control the economy but can choose to provide quality education.
“I do feel that people who live in Gilbert value that very high and would make choices to keep quality of education at a level they would come to expect,” she said.
District override elections
Apache Junction Unified School District
• $2.8 million* maintenance and operations override renewal
Gilbert Unified School District
• $17.6 million* maintenance and operations override renewal
• $8.2 million* capital outlay override
J.O. Combs Unified School District
• $681,597* K-3 maintenance and operations override
Queen Creek Unified School District
• $2.1 million* maintenance and operations override renewal
*Dollar amounts are estimates and can change throughout the life of the override
Types of overrides
• Allows districts to increase budget by 10 percent of the state established budget limit
• Good for seven years
• Must be renewed by voters every five years; if not renewed, phases out over sixth and seventh year
K-3 MAINTENANCE AND OPERATIONS
• Allows districts to increase budget by 5 percent
• Only available to elementary and unified districts
• Money can only be used on special programs for students in kindergarten through third grade
CAPITAL OUTLAY OVERRIDE
• Can be for unlimited amounts
• Can overlap
• Lasts for seven years
• Used for capital improvements such as technology or furniture, fixtures and equipment
Source: Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona Tax Research Association