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Private schools fear loss of diversity among students

Citizen Staff Writer



If the state Legislature suspends tuition tax credits, private school officials say their campuses will lose bright, talented students and much of their ethnic diversity.

Tucson has 58 private schools.

For Magdalena Pike, 15, who chose Salpointe Catholic High when she was in middle school, tax credit donations pay 51 percent of her tuition.

But her mom, Christina Colchado, still has to work at two jobs to afford the other 49 percent.

“The value of the education is completely worth it,” Colchado said, adding that after her daughter goes to college and gets a good-paying job “I’m retiring early.”

If tax credits are cut, then Magdalena may have to leave Salpointe.

“It’s scary that it can get worse when it’s so bad right now,” she said. “My mom has worked so hard and so much and I had a job (for a few hours a week because she isn’t 16 yet).” She and her mom both were laid of in December and her mom just recently got a second job again.

Kay Sullivan, Salpointe director of advancement, said one goal of the school, 1545 E. Copper St., is to “maintain ethnic, cultural and economic diversity. Tax credits allow us to be a school for all kids.”

At St. Gregory’s College Preparatory School, 3231 N. Craycroft Road, “we are a Northeast Side school, but we do not have a Northeast Side profile,” said Headmaster Bill Creeden.

“We pride selves on diversity and that is a concern. The tax credit program brings together people from all the different quarters of Tucson,” he said.

At Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, 9500 N. Oracle Road. “Our students come from all over – from South Tucson to Pinal County to the foothills to Marana,” said Director of Development Judy Davidson. “We have 491 students in grades six to 12. Of those students, 394 are receiving some level of support through an Arizona tax credit organization. This represents 80 percent of our students.”

At Salpointe, the largest Catholic school in Tucson, with 1,200 students last year, 650 students got help from tuition tax credit donations.

A total of 405 students got them from Catholic Tuition Support Organization, which disperses money solely on financial need and doesn’t allow earmarking it for specific students.

Another 245 got tax credit funds from other scholarship tuition organizations, which allow relatives and friends, but not parents, to designate donations to a specific student.

For the 405 Salpointe students who proved they needed financial assistance – including six who got full scholarships – Sullivan said, “it is doubtful in this economy that the numbers would do anything but worsen. That means 405 bright, promising, college-bound, yet financially challenged students depend on tax credit dollars to keep them in school.”

Creeden said St. Gregory, a much smaller private, not religiously affiliated school, would allow seniors next year who couldn’t afford tuition to stay for their last year. “We have a moral obligation to them.”

Total tax credit funding last year accounted for almost $1.2 million, or 16 percent of Salpointe tuition. Per-student tuition in 2007-08 was $6,180 for Catholic students, $7,135 for non-Catholics. This year it is $6,430 for Catholic students and $7,420 for non-Catholics. There are discounts for second or third students from a family attending concurrently, Sullivan said.

At St. Gregory, where the tuition is $15,300 a year, 38 of 313 students received partial tuition tax credit assistance, Creeden said, but no student got more than 90 percent.

Private schools are scrambling for options in case tuition tax credits go away next year.

Salpointe may consider a sliding scale tuition and “we are designating fundraised dollars to help with financial aid . . . but they cannot meet the extensive need tax credit funds have been able to provide,” Sullivan said.

St. Gregory may do more fundraising, increase the annual fund goal, make specific requests of donors and increase the school endowment to underwrite financial aid, Creeden said.

If tuition can’t be funded at current levels and no other money is available, “it’s possible fewer students will be able to attend,” he said.



School tax credits, which have enabled students to attend President Obama’s inauguration, visit an Arabian horse farm, sing at Carnegie Hall, get tutoring and go to private schools parents couldn’t otherwise afford, may be on the chopping block.

The threat comes as state legislators try to reconcile an anticipated budget deficit of $3 billion for next fiscal year.

Legislators normally wouldn’t consider touching tax credits, knowing it could be political suicide to suspend something that gives taxpayers a way to earmark where their tax dollars go.

Arizona House Minority Whip Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said all tax credits, including those to schools, should be reviewed: “What’s the point of having these tax credits in place for schools when at the same time you’re taking money from the schools anyway?”

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he supports school tax credits, which more taxpayers take advantage of each year.

Last year, Arizona returned more than $95 million in tax credits to those who made donations to public and private schools.

In the last 10 years, Arizona public schools have garnered more than $263 million for extracurricular activities and fees; private schools have received $293 million for tuition assistance.

The program, which wasn’t part of the state House or Senate’s initial budget-cutting plans, allows tax credits – not deductions – of up to $200 per person or $400 per married couple for donations to public schools.

For those donating to private school tuition, the limits are $500 per person and $1,000 per couple.

Donations are considered dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state and can also be deducted as charitable contributions for federal taxes.

Area public school educators are split on whether tax credits should be suspended next year. Private school officials are united against suspending the program, saying it would affect their diversity. (See related story, Page 3A)

“The Legislature made their bed; let them lie in it,” said Sahuarita Unified School District Superintendent Jay St. John.

He said axing tax credits “violates the original philosophy behind the idea” of letting taxpayers “direct a minute part of their taxes to a specific governmental cost or program.”

Flowing Wells Unified School District Superintendent Nic Clement is torn. He said tax credits allowed 32 district middle school students to attend President Obama’s inauguration.

But “I don’t believe you can say all budget options are on the table without putting tax credits on the list,” he said. “They are directly related to the revenue stream and should be in the discussion, and the advantages and disadvantages debated by both the Senate and House.”

Dan Contorno, Marana Unified’s chief financial officer, agreed, but wanted a promise from lawmakers if the program is cut. “Given the economic hardship across the country and within Arizona, the elimination of the school tax credit program should be for the purpose of offsetting any proposed cuts to K-12 education,” he said.

Another option to consider “in lieu of elimination of the program is to allow districts more spending options for this revenue,” Contorno said, noting the strict guidelines for use of the funds.

Tax credit dollars cannot be used for regular classroom activities during school hours.

Mary Kamerzell superintendent at Catalina Foothills Unified School District, favors “at least suspending” the tax credits for public and private schools.

“The alternative for diversion of a taxpayer’s personal income tax obligation to Arizona schools was made in a very different economic environment,” she said.”

Monique Soria, spokeswoman for the Sunnyside Unified School District, which has a much greater concentration of students from low-income families than Catalina Foothills, said there definitely would be a hardship on parents and schools.

“We know there have to be cuts,” she said. “But we hope it’s not the first thing on the list because it benefits parents and children so much.”

Tom Rogers, superintendent at Tanque Verde Unified School District, said cutting tax credits may be the lesser evil.

“I would hate to see tax credits be suspended, but it would have less effect on classroom instruction than other proposed cuts.

“Field trips would likely come to an end and all of our extracurricular programs would suffer, as we currently expend little of the maintenance and operations budget for these activities, relying heavily on tax credit donations,” Rogers said.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen concurred.

“We can’t afford to lose anything (but) maybe it should be considered because it is inequitable. It’s inequitable within the system (with taxpayers in wealthier school districts donating more to their schools) and between systems (public and private),” she said.

Vail Unified School District Superintendent Calvin Baker said, “With the severity of the state’s budget crisis, every option should be on the table. Getting rid of tax credits has some merit because tax credits certainly do contribute to the gap between revenues and expenditures. And tax credits contribute to inequities between ‘wealthy’ and ‘poor’ schools.”

But Baker doubted the idea will move forward because it’s popular with entities that form a “diverse and powerful lobbying group.”

“Private school parents and supporters love the benefit it gives private schools,” he said, “and public school parents love it because it gives them a tax credit for the increasing large student sports and activity fees.”

Coaches and others love tax credits because they make fundraising so much easier,” Baker said. “Spend Saturday supervising a car wash . . . or convince one parent to give the activity their tax credit – pretty easy choice.”

The Arizona Republic contributed to this article.

Tuition tax credit funding

School 1998 2008

Salpointe Catholic High $216,000 $1.2 million

St. Gregory College Preparatory $12,500* $368,000


Sources: Salpointe and St. Gregory

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