Higley school district officials trying to sort out bond vote

Arizona Republic
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Hayley Ringle

Higley Unified School District officials are waiting to see how a bill does in the state Legislature that would temporarily increase bonded indebtedness for school districts before deciding whether it will ask voters to approve another bond in November.

House Bill 2405, which has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee, would fix a deficiency in a Senate bill passed last year to bring some relief to Higley and other school districts that can't touch already approved bond money because of declining real estate valuations.

Higley and 14 other school districts have been unable to sell a total of $297.9 million in bonds.

The law relaxed a restriction that prevents districts from exceeding 10 percent of their secondary assessed valuation in total outstanding debt. Because of that restriction and declining valuations, Higley had been prevented from selling much of a remaining $71.5 million bond issue voters approved in 2006.

The law firm of Gust Rosenfeld, one of the state's largest bond attorney firms, challenged the law's constitutionality on grounds it constituted special legislation.

If the new bill becomes law, Higley would double its bonding capacity and be able to get to about $50 million to build two planned middle schools and make needed repairs to its other aging schools, said Tony Malaj, Higley's executive director of support services and community partnerships.

However, the new bill also faces opposition, including from the Arizona Tax Research Association.

Association President Kevin McCarthy said he has taxpayer and legal concerns, noting the School Facilities Board and Students First legislation already set the rules on school capital funding and the influence of property taxes, he said.

"This is not too far off from someone who lost their job, maxed their credit card and now wants an increase on their credit-card limit," McCarthy said. "In a normal time, I think there would be more sympathy for local government, but we have just been through a historic recession. The state has lost more than 30 percent of its revenue, and on top of that has seen significant tax increases. None of this has been fun for school districts or taxpayers."

He's also concerned about how this bill would affect a current lawsuit by charter schools that are suing on equity grounds over the state money they receive compared with what typically goes to public schools.

"Charters will take that as further evidence there is inequity between charters and public schools," McCarthy said. "We don't want to take ourselves back into court."

If the bill doesn't become law, the Higley governing board would need to decide if it would ask voters to authorize new bonds to pay for the new schools and building repair, possibly in November or next year.

The school board approved hiring Phoenix-based Primary Consultants in February for $21,000 to provide a feasibility study, detailed demographic research and a community survey to determine if voters would be amenable to passing a bond in these hard economic times -- and the measure's chances on the already large November ballot.

Paul Ulan, a Primary Consultants principal, has worked with Higley before, and has provided similar work for Mesa, Tempe Union and Kyrene school districts.

"There are multiple moving pieces to that question" of whether Higley will seek another bond, Ulan said.

Higley officials are expecting all eight K-8 schools to be at capacity within the next year. The two planned middle schools for seventh- and eighth-grade students would free up room at the elementary schools. Higley had close to 600 new students this school year.

"The voters moved into Higley and Gilbert for a reason. They moved here for the schools," Malaj said. "When they vote to tax themselves they expect that bond money to be used to build schools.

"When the legislators prevent that from happening, it really is a sore subject with the voters out here."