Override not likely to go away

Yuma Sun
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Jackie Leatherman

Yuma Elementary School District 1 is the only local district that has successfully passed budget overrides since the state Legislature created them in 1985.

Next Tuesday, the question will appear on the ballot for the sixth time for voters within the district to allow a property tax increase to help maintain teachers' competitive salaries.

If funding from the Legislature doesn't change, it won't be the last time the question is proposed to voters, according to school officials.

"There is no way that could be the case," said District Superintendent Vivian Egbert when asked if the district could budget without factoring in the override.

"With the way the districts are currently funded, unless the Legislature changed how they would fund school districts, you always have to look for other ways to assist you in providing quality education."

District 1 School Board President John Keegan agreed.

"Unless the economy turns around and the Legislature finds some way of financing public education, that's a hard crystal ball to look at," he said. "If everything stays status quo, yeah, we'll probably have to do it again every five years."

"It helps us maintain the increases that we were given since 1985," Egbert said. "If the override ever did fail, we would have to do something to adjust our budget. (We) would have to make drastic budget changes if that happened."

Egbert said she couldn't speculate what changes the district would make to budget without the override. If voters turn down the question next week, the district has two more years of the override voters approved in 2001. Egbert said after the current period has expired, the district has two additional years of phasing out the funds in order to re-establish its budget.

"It is an opportunity for the citizens of the school district to examine what is the school district doing with the money that's made available to it," said Michael Hunter, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. The association is a statewide taxpayer organization which represents individuals and businesses to ensure effective use of tax dollars. Hunter said the association rarely takes a stand on the override issue.

According to Hunter, school districts must have two budgets — one that includes the override, and one that does not — that go beyond a different bottom line and outlines what areas will be affected if voters don't give approval.

"The communities should be asking: 'What would you do with this money and what would you do if you didn't have this money?' I think the citizens of the school district, the taxpayers, should be holding the district's feet to the fire," Hunter said, adding that citizens do not necessarily have to oppose the override to inquire about what the district would do if it didn't exist.

Arizona has 207 school districts, of which, 106 are budgeted for an override, according to Hunter. Some of the districts have the right to implement an override without voter approval, and other districts might be in the process of phasing out their overrides.

David Estabrook, a school volunteer, said he has grown to expect seeing District 1's override on the ballot.

"What really bothers me is why can't they plan a budget that allows them to not spend anymore than what they are taking in (without factoring in the override)," he said. Estabrook added that although he doesn't know all of the nuisances of districts obtaining government funding, he questioned why the district couldn't prepare to budget without the override.

The 36-cent increase in a property tax rate would generate $1.5 million bringing the district's override total to $3.7 million. In 2001, voters approved the current 52-cent override. If approved, the new override rate would increase from 52 to 88 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The new rate would cost property owners $88 a year, or $7.42 a month, on a house worth $100,000.

The proposed override is expected to cover a 2-percent salary increase to the budgeted 1 percent raise for employees, and allow the district to adjust its salaries to be more market competitive. The market adjustments will total about $700,000 and the salary increases add up to $600,000, according to Chief Financial Officer Myriam Roa. Remaining funds will be used to reintroduce programs that have been cut by budget restraints, she said.

An elementary teacher with a bachelor's degree and no prior experience starts at $25,343 within District 1. Next year, in the Crane Elementary School District, the same teacher will start at $28,331.

By law, school districts are allowed to ask voters to increase the district's budget up to 10 percent of its maintenance and operating budget; that portion, the largest portion of the district's budget, funds mainly salaries. Until this year, the district has asked for 6 percent of that budget. This year, it's asking for 10 percent due to growth.

"I think it's responsibility on our part to ask the community for support in education," Egbert said.