By James J. Hodl
Copper Area News
November 5 was a bad day for school override referendum in Pinal County. Of the seven referendum offered to voters, only the Casa Grande Elementary School District was successful, though slightly less than 51% of voters okayed the continuation of the existing 10% override of its Maintenance and Operations (M&O) budget. An identical proposal in 2011 failed when 54% of voters rejected it.
Elsewhere in Pinal County, voters rejected a 5% M&O override the J. O. Combs Unified School District (41% yes), a 15% override for the Eloy Elementary School District (41% yes), a 12% override for the Florence Unified School District (41% yes), a 15% override for the Oracle Elementary School District (49% yes) and a 10% override for the Stanfield Elementary School District (30% yes).
In the wake of the ballot box rejection, the mood was grim at the Florence Unified School District (FUSD). The district’s current 15% M&O override expires at the end of the current school year, forcing FUSD to open school next fall operating only on the funds provided by the state of Arizona.
“Losing $1.7 million in revenues creates a very big hole in the district’s budget,” said John Schreur, spokesman for the FUSD Governing Board. “Without the override funds, the board will have to get creative to avoid negatively impacting students and school programs.”
Among the Hobson’s choices facing the board is the closing or consolidating of schools; and the related letting go some teachers while increasing class sizes. The district might also reorganize to create middle schools in the mix of educational institutions in the district, and consolidate or eliminate the district’s two alternative schools.
The November override measure was the third attempted by FUSD in as many years. While earlier measure sought to extend the 15% override, the current one would have reduced the override and its taxing ability to only 12%.
Schreur feels even this lower override failed because voters were not aware of the cuts in the school budget made during the previous three years.
But Denise Guenther, FUSD Board Vice president, isn’t sure better marketing was needed to get the override approved.
“The Yes for Kids committee did many events to get the word out. The override failure was just a sign of the times. The voter turnout was a very big disappointment. People just don’t feel that their vote would make a difference or felt no desire to cast their ballot, which was mail-in only to make it even easier for the registered voter,” she said.
The board will discuss how to trim district programs, staff and facilities during the winter, Schreur said.
For the Eloy Elementary School District (EESD), the sound drubbing of its 15% override initiative definitely hurts as the district is going into the final year of reduced funding under its earlier override and the governing board must consider where to cut the budget.
“First EESD thanks all voters who gave us a ‘yes’ vote,” said Superintendent Ruby James. “You truly understand the importance of what an override means to the staff and students of our schools.
“But now we have one year before the full devastation of reduced funding hits our district. EESD must educate our voters on exactly how budgets work for schools,” James said. “As a superintendent of schools, I must be a visionary and a forward thinker. We have to continue to move EESD forward in as many ways as possible. It is important that the citizens of this fine community look at where we are collectively, as a whole.”
Not only with growth of the district be stifled by the failure of the override, but the need to pare the budget may result in lost programs and jobs, and a reduction of transportation.
“Two programs that we were very excited about starting for our students in grades K-8 were a Folklorico Dance Troupe to accompany our mariachi band and an Outdoors Club for students who are interested in fishing, camping and nature,” James explained. “Now these two valuable programs must be placed on hold as well as future opportunities for our students.”
Emphasizing that EESD has one year to reinstate the full 15% override, James called for a bigger and better community effort to change the “no” vote of November 5 into a “yes” vote next year. The district will initiate community forums to engage all Eloy citizens, voters and concerned parties to discuss budgets, programs and overrides.
“It is unfortunate that the district was not successful in the passing of the 5% override, but I truly believe that this is not a J.O. Combs issue. The numbers are very telling – only one district (out of seven) in Pinal County was successful. I believe that citizens want to be supportive of schools but many families are still struggling to make ends meet due to the recession,” said Dr. Gayle A Blanchard, superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified School District covering much of San Tan Valley.
The November election was Combs’ third attempt to renew our M&O override. The Governing Board approved a very conservative 5% in hopes of community support. This last phase-down of the current 10% override means that the district will have to reduce its budget by about $700,000 dollars, in addition to the $1.3 million from previous phase-downs of the override. Additionally, since 2008 the state of Arizona has reduced our budget $3.7 million. It has been six straight years of budget reductions totaling close to $6 million.
According to Blanchard, the 5% override dollars were earmarked to reinstate competitive middle school sports, reduce class sizes and use dollars to attract and retain quality employees. Because we were not successful in the November election, these actions will not occur, she added.
Superintendent Charie Wallace of the Coolidge Unified School District blames school funding problems on the way Arizona funds education.
“Arizona has the most convoluted system for funding schools,” said Wallace, who has lived in the Coolidge area most of her life. “The state provides base funding on a per-student basis and permits school districts needing additional funding to secure up to 15% more through a voter-approved hike in the property tax. But when the legislature reduces educational funding as it has done in recent years, the amount available from the override property taxes declines too.”
She added that most high schools in the state have had to survive on overrides for years.
To keep within budget constraints, Coolidge has trimmed some administrative positions. But the next round of cuts might doom full-day kindergarten.
“I was disappointed that the overrides didn’t pass as our schools have many pressing needs,” Wallace said.
“Most importantly, we needs to provide pay raises to teachers to maintain our best teachers and to attract additionally talented instructors,” she noted. “Support staffers also need pay raises. We need to hire teachers for our gifted students. And we need to put music and art back into elementary schools.”
Coolidge didn’t have an override on the ballot this year, owing to proposals in previous years losing by large margins.
A huge community education effort is what put the 10% override continuation initiative over the top for the Casa Grande Elementary School District (CGWSD), said Superintendent Dr. Frank Davidson. A ballot proposal one year earlier was turned down by 54% of voters.
“We had an A-Citizens Committee that worked on weekends and evenings to get across to voters that we had a superior educational program that would be jeopardized if the override funds were to evaporate,” Davidson said. “We had teachers, principals and concerned citizens making phone calls and visiting home to remind them that CGESD schools have a 90%-plus parent approval rating and five A+ Awards from the Arizona Education Association.
“Yet with this massive boots-on-the-ground campaign, the override continuation won by only 132 votes,” he noted.
Davidson admits that it is currently a tough environment in Arizona for asking for any kind of revenue proposal involving taxation. But the override effort emphasized that continuing the override that has been in place since 2000 would not result in homeowners paying a penny more in property taxes. And it emphasized that getting value for the revenue in a superior teaching staff.
“The override adds $6,000 in compensation to teacher salaries, and that enables CGESD to recruit better teachers both within and outside of the state,” Davidson said. The district’s recent foray into Illinois netted 18 new teachers, and future recruitment efforts will stop in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Combs’ Blanchard does see some light at the end of the tunnel for school districts. Pinal County is beginning to see signs of new growth. There are currently five land and housing developments under way that will boost the property tax base for schools. And while the student population began to decline when the recession occurred, it has since leveled off and stabilized.
This could compensate for some of the lost revenues – provided a school has an override in effect.