Budget losses at polls worry Valley schools

The Arizona Republic
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Alex Bloom

The economy apparently was on voters' minds Tuesday when they walked into Valley voting booths to address school-district spending through bonds and budget overrides.

Valley voters supported only 20 of the 36 school-district bonds and budget overrides on the ballot in Maricopa County, according to unofficial results. That was down considerably from last year, when voters supported 28 of 31 budget measures. Voters' action comes amid a period of deep cuts to state education spending because of the state budget crisis.

Experts say the economic downturn probably made voters think twice about approving many budget overrides, which allow school districts to maintain or increase property-tax levels. "There have been record job losses, record home foreclosures and apparently they're sending the message that they don't think government ought to be insulated either," said Justin Olson, senior research analyst at the Arizona Tax Research Association.

Peoria Unified, Phoenix Union High and Dysart Unified district officials all were surprised to see voters reject multimillion-dollar budget overrides that had been in place for many years. Phoenix Union's maintenance-and-operations override, allowing the district to override budget limits by 10 percent to fund smaller class sizes and extracurricular activities, had been in place since 1989.

"It is a setback, and we are going to be going back to the voters so that we can support our college and career-preparedness mission," said Phoenix Union Superintendent Kent Scribner.

Eighteen percent of voters countywide turned out to the polls. Lower turnout is usually a recipe for success for school districts, which can mobilize groups of parents and school supporters. Provisional ballots and early ballots dropped off at polling places have yet to be counted and could make a difference in close elections. Final results are expected Friday.

Superintendents in districts with failed overrides expressed deep concern about balancing their budgets. Many will have to begin cutting staff and programs while trying to maintain educational goals. In Dysart, voters' refusal to renew the district's $4.4 million K-3 override means it will have to discontinue an award-winning K-3 reading-intervention program, according to Jim Dean, Dysart's director of community relations.

Still, slightly more districts saw budget measures pass than fail. Six of seven school-bond issues passed, with Tempe Elementary district taxpayers strongly supporting a $77 million bond in the midst of the same troubled economy. Tempe Superintendent Art Tate credited supporters for campaigning hard and demonstrating the necessity of the bond, which includes rebuilding three schools and purchasing 45 buses.

Pollster Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University has studied school elections closely and said demonstrating need is the most important factor in passage of ballot items.

"Arizonans . . . have always shown a lot of support for education for students if you can demonstrate that the money is essential," Merrill said. "If people really believe that things are at a crisis level, they will support those things."

Paradise Valley Unified, Mesa Public Schools and Scottsdale Unified also saw override success.

"(Our community has) the option to take control over at least this small part of our funding, and they stood strong and did that," said Scottsdale Unified Superintendent Gary Catalani.

With the state budget facing drastic cuts, and education spending making up 40 percent of state general-fund spending, Valley voters in school districts with successful elections had a chance to insulate their schools somewhat.

"They want education to be spared, and they're not getting a lot of traction at the state level," said Tracey Benson, media-relations specialist with the Arizona School Boards Association. "With these bond and override elections, they're able to vote their hearts and minds and say, 'Look, this is a priority.' "