SW Valley school districts seek OK for overrides, bond issues

The Arizona Republic
Monday, July 18, 2011
Megan Gordon

Several Southwest Valley school districts are asking voters to pitch in with extra money to sustain programs or increase funding to help maintain schools.

Voters in the Fowler, Liberty and Littleton elementary and Buckeye Union High school districts will decide Nov. 8 whether to approve maintenance and operations override proposals that range from $1.8 million to $3.4 million depending on district size.

The Saddle Mountain Unified and Tolleson Elementary school districts are asking for annual capital overrides of $800,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, while the Agua Fria Union High School District is asking for permission to issue $31.6 million in bonds to pay for school upgrades and new buses.

District officials argue they need the override money to buy new textbooks, computers, buses and small repairs like painting or new desks. Bonds, on the other hand, allow districts to borrow money to build and maintain schools.

Many district residents and parents have formed political action committees to campaign and urge voters to approve the overrides and bonds. Last November, the Buckeye Union, Liberty and Saddle Mountain districts lost budget-increase elections.

Agua Fria parent Mario Roman, who is also chairman of a political action committee called Continue the Quality that supports the override, said the district needs to maintain its buildings for students and to help improve community appeal.

"There are a lot of things that need to be done that don't affect people with children in the school district, but the main result in all of this is a better school system," he said. "A better school system equates to better property values, because people want to move in and come to our district."

Parents in other districts such as Buckeye Union and Saddle Mountain are organizing, but have yet to form political action committees, according to Maricopa County Elections Department.

But organizations such as the Goldwater Institute and Arizona Tax Research Association, which are normally opposed to tax increases, recommend taxpayers get educated about how districts will spend the funding.

"Taxpayers should remain highly involved. They should contact the school boards to get information and specific questions answered," said Jennifer Stielow, Jennifer Stielow, Arizona Tax Research Association vice president. "School administration should be transparent on where the money will go."

Agua Fria administrators said they'll use the bond money to upgrade schools and provide more safety on campuses by adding fencing and security systems.

Millennium High School will get the bulk of the funding to build a two-story, 21-classroom building in Millennium's student parking lot.

Officials also plan to buy buses and vans and upgrade old campuses like Agua Fria High School.

With a moratorium on state funding for school improvements, Agua Fria Superintendent Dennis Runyan said it's up to local residents to repair and maintain schools. If approved, property-tax bills in the Agua Fria District would increase by $28 annually for a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000 once all the bonds are sold.

The Saddle Mountain and Tolleson Elementary districts, which lost their elections last year, are asking voters to help purchase new curriculum and buses.

Saddle Mountain Superintendent Mark Joraanstad said nearly all district students take the bus because of the distances they live from schools. District buses cover the 550-square-mile district, and many of them do not have air conditioning.

"We want to upgrade the buses one per year," he said.

The district also wants to improve its high-speed Internet access to allow students to take interactive courses online.

Tolleson Elementary plans to use its $1.5 million annual capital override for technology.

Superintendent Lupita Hightower said the district wants to purchase a "blended model" of math curriculum, which means students would use digital textbooks rather than traditional paper textbooks. She said curriculum would be complemented with paper workbooks to use at home.

Other districts such as Buckeye Union and Littleton Elementary want voters to continue supporting budget overrides in place for at least a decade to help pay for teacher salaries and student activities.

Buckeye's voters rejected a maintenance and operations override proposal in 2010, forcing the district to cut $540,000. The cuts increased health-care costs for employees and class sizes and students now must "pay to play," business manager Jeff Simmons said.

"The override is very important, because the state continues to cut school funding," he said. "This is the one piece of the budget that the local community has control over."

If the maintenance and operations override is approved, Littleton voters would continue to support fine-arts, physical-education and technology classes, maintain teacher and staff salary levels and sustain after-school activities, said Ken Hicks, executive director of business resources.

Property taxes would remain the same if approved, but taxes would decrease if it fails, Hicks said. A homeowner with a house with an assessed valuation of $100,000 pays $144 annually for the district's override, but Hicks said the average home value in the district is much lower so many residents pay less.

For information about school district elections, visit maricopa.gov/schools.

7 districts seek overrides, bonds

Seven Southwest Valley school districts are asking for budget increases or to sustain decades of additional voter-approved funding on the Nov. 8 ballot. Maintenance and operations overrides allow districts to extend their budgets by up to 15 percent for seven years. Districts usually use the money for teachers and programs. Capital overrides are a set amount of funding for seven years, which are used for new textbooks, computers, new buses and small repairs like painting or new desks. Bonds can be sold over 15 years and are used to build and maintain schools. Taxpayers foot the bill once bonds are sold.

*All amounts are estimated annual increases except Agua Fria's bond, which can be sold over 15 years. As bonds are sold, taxes increase to pay off the debt. Once all the bonds are sold, taxpayers will incur the total cost of the sales on their tax bills.

**The estimated annual cost to taxpayers on a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000 if the ballot measure is approved.