Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

School district voters should approve budget overrides (even in Sunnyside)

Voters in six county school districts will vote on budget overrides and one school bond Tuesday (though many have probably already voted because of the all-mail election in some districts).

Voters in five of them would be wise to pass them. Voters in the sixth, Sunnyside, should be cautious about giving this current school board more money to spend. More on that later.

The recession has devastated public school funding across the country, but it’s hit Arizona especially hard.

Arizona has a convoluted school funding system. Every property owner in Arizona pays a school property tax, but that tax is sent to the state capitol where it’s pooled with all the other state revenue and then its distributed back to the school districts on a per student basis.

So while local school districts set the property tax rate to cover the per capita cost, there is no “local control” when it comes to school taxes. Districts can’t raise or lower their own local district taxes to meet their needs, they’re at the mercy of the state.

And the past three budget years the state has been merciless when it comes to education funding. According to a report earlier this year by the liberal Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, Arizona has cut K-12 education funding by 24 percent since 2008.

For this current fiscal year, the Legislature in order to balance the budget cut public school funding by $150 million despite voters the year before approving a statewide sales tax increase that was supposed to prevent further cuts to education through 2013.

Funding for schools has always been a mixed priority of Arizona voters. Whenever they’ve been directly asked to increase their taxes to provide more money for schools, they almost always approve it. But they also elect a majority of legislators who don’t like funding public schools and who want to dismantle the public school system for a system of charter schools and school vouchers. As a result, Arizona has ranked at or near the bottom of per pupil funding nationally for years.

To make up for what the state Legislature isn’t providing, most school districts have gone to their voters to take advantage of a state law that allows school districts to exceed state spending caps by up to 10 percent of the total budget. The budget override must be approved by voters, must be for a set number of years and is paid for through an increase in property taxes.

Nearly every school district in metropolitan Tucson either has a budget override in place or is seeking to renew an expiring one in Tuesday’s election.

Marana, Flowing Wells, Vail and Continental school districts are all seeking renewals of existing overrides. Tanque Verde has a current override for K-3 but wants to replace it with a more encompassing override for all grades.

While these are all technically tax increases, most taxpayers won’t see much change in their tax bills if they’re approved because they’re already paying for overrides.

They should continue to demonstrate their financial support for public education and approve these ballot measures.

As for Sunnyside, it too needs to renew a budget override. If approved, it would provide the district roughly $2.6 million a year for six years to pay for all-day kindergarten, elementary school art, music and PE classes, teachers and other staff.

Sunnyside also is asking voters to approve an $88 million bond to borrow money to improve school facilities, buy new buses and make technology upgrades.

Sunnyside desperately needs the money. It’s one of the poorest school districts in the county with about four out of five students qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch meal program for low and moderate income students.

But the Sunnyside school board has demonstrated recently that it doesn’t have tight hold on the public’s money.

They seem to be under the spell of the district’s dynamic and innovative superintendent, Manuel Isquierdo.

If the district’s statistics are to be believed, Sunnyside under Isquierdo has made enormous improvements in student attendance, student discipline, graduation rates and student academic achievement.

His laptops initiative, in which middle school students and high school freshman can receive a free laptop if they meet a set of academic, behavioral and attendance standards, appears to be an unqualified success.

Successful superintendents are a highly sought after commodity and the district has been desperate to keep him. The pay him a hefty $230,000 a year salary, making him the highest paid superintendent in the county and one of the highest paid in the state.

When he was caught improperly using his district credit card last year for personal expenses, the board had to be shamed into telling him to pay it back and to be more careful with the credit card.

In September they gave him a $75,000 a year raise for three years to cover his expenses selling the district’s laptop program to other school districts in the nation without any guarantee that the sales effort will succeed and the district will get its money back.

That didn’t go over well with teachers who have gone without raises or had their pay cut for the past two years.

The board needs to resist becoming mesmerized by Isquierdo. It might be better for Sunnyside voters to wait until next year’s school board elections before deciding on increasing taxes for the bond program and to renew the override.

But Sunnyside needs the money now. If voters think the school board has been prudent in its management of the budget and its oversight of Isquierdo, they should have no qualms about voting for the two tax measures.

But if not, they should hold their nose and still vote for them, but be vigorous next year in supporting candidates for the board who will keep their feet on the ground when it comes to decisions on the superintendent’s compensation.

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