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School districts betting heavily on upcoming overrides

For many Arizona school districts, a lot is riding on upcoming November budget override elections.

Schools already have been hit by state budget reductions, and many districts will have to cut programs and staff even further unless they receive a funding boost from override elections. Lawmakers dealt schools an overall reduction of 3.2 percent during the fiscal 2009 budget cycle, which carried over to fiscal 2010. But more cuts loom as the state faces large deficits projected for the next three years.

School officials said programs that serve underperforming and excelling students will be most at risk, as voters decide whether to pay for programs that schools call essential for their K-12 pupils. Another risk: overcrowded classrooms.

In the Phoenix Union High School District, for example, the governing board is asking for a continuation of a budget override that was passed several years ago, totaling more than $13 million for the 2010-2011 school year. The money is intended to maintain small class sizes, pay for performing arts and ROTC programs, and extend alternative-education programs such as the district’s Suns/Diamondbacks Academy.

Paul Lowes, a world history teacher at Phoenix Union’s North High School, said the impact of the override’s failure “would be enormous.”

“On top of already massive budget cuts, a failure to pass this would be devastating,” Lowes said. “We would be looking at shutting small schools, overcrowded classes – more overcrowded than they’ve ever been. Also, the loss of security and nursing staff, as well as teaching staff.”

It’s not just Phoenix. Districts across the state are also betting heavily on upcoming overrides.

In Maricopa County, this year’s ballot will feature more education overrides than ever before, with at least 24 districts asking voters for additional money.

“It’s the highest number we’ve ever seen,” said Hope Olguin, election specialist with the Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools. “Previously, the highest number (of districts seeking overrides) had been 23.”

There are several types of education overrides that go before voters, including: maintenance and operations, money that can be used for general purposes; capital outlays, for equipment and technology; and those specifically targeted toward raising money for programs that benefit students in grades K-3.

A number of state lawmakers said a refusal to compromise and examine the realities of the modern classroom – including inflationary costs and declining enrollment – have forced districts to reach out to voters.

“I cannot stress how important these overrides are,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Phoenix. “Most of these overrides would simply maintain funding for school districts, and mitigate or minimize the effects of the most massive budget cuts in the history of K-12 education in this state. It’s not about getting more money, but maintaining what the districts have.”

“I think, in any year, overrides are important for school districts,” said Rep. David Lujan, a Democrat from Phoenix. “But this year, they’re critical for the districts. With money being cut from other sources, the districts need additional funding – not to grow programs, but to sustain them.”

Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican, said the overrides present a substantive form of democracy, by allowing cities and towns the opportunity to enhance the educational services offered to their children.

“This gives a local community the chance to say that they want to have more than the average level of funding,” he says. “Perhaps this allows them to attract better teachers, because they can fund better, and pay better.”

Others, however, said schools were spared from large budget cuts because lawmakers do, indeed, realize the importance of education. For instance, a few state agencies had to deal with cuts of up to 10 percent of their budgets. Others saw even more drastic reductions.

Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise, maintains that schools, in fact, saw no funding reductions this year, as Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed educational cuts from the budget, while schools received additional federal stimulus money.

“It’s a complete fallacy. There were no public education cuts this year,” Harper said.

Tom Jenney, Arizona director of the taxpayer watchdog group Americans for Prosperity and its local arm, the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, said school districts already have enough money to pay for quality teachers, textbooks and other resources, but they mismanage the money they’ve already got.

“When you look at the resources they actually have, and you see how they could be allocated, you realize that they are wasting a lot of taxpayer money,” he said. By his group’s accounting, class sizes could be drastically reduced while effective teachers could be making salaries of close to $80,000 a year. But, he said, heavy administrative costs and unwieldy union rules prevent the firing of “clock-punching” teachers and hamper districts from doing more with their money.

“Putting district schools under good management will not be easy – there are huge political constraints,” said Jenney. “But the answer is not to keep throwing more money at the existing school system.”

Many education overrides on the November ballot are continuations of previously-passed measures.

The Washington Elementary School District and Glendale Union High School District are seeking a continuation of extra local money for maintenance and operations.

“Both measures provide funding for school programs and services that directly support student achievement,” according to a report by two groups supporting the movement – “Support Our Kids” and “Citizens for a Quality Education.”

Many Washington Elementary School District students who graduate from the eighth grade go on to attend Glendale Union High School District secondary schools.

Other ballot overrides are seeking new or additional money from voters, in order to make up for state cuts.

The Coolidge Unified School District, for example, is pursuing both new and continuing overrides in November, while the Higley Unified School District is asking voters for new money.

Many other districts, from Lake Havasu City to Morenci to Topock, also are going to the public in November to ask for assistance.

Judy Richardson, vice president with Stone & Youngberg, a financial services firm that monitors overrides, said the state budget crisis has created a Catch-22 situation for schools, many of which desperately need the additional cash.

“There are conflicting things going on,” she said. “In terms of the budget, they need money. But on the other hand, it’s not a good time to be going out and asking for money.”

Dr. Jim Zaharis, a member of the Governor’s P-20 Coordinating Council, said the state budget situation means many districts have no choice but to go to voters to seek funding.

“Overrides have become a significant part of many school district operations,” he said. “They have come to be a critical part of budgeting, with districts facing declining resources.”

And while education money has been cut during the past two years, Arizona could be facing a budget deficit next year of close to $2.5 billion, necessitating even greater slashing of classroom funding.

Yet the state already ranks near the bottom in classroom spending.

Citing the National Center for Education Statistics, Citizens for A Quality Education reports that Arizona stands at 49th in per-pupil funding. The group also notes that “approximately 80 percent of all Arizona schools … are operating on existing overrides.”

Supporters of the override movement said the override ballot measures don’t involve new taxes or increases.

“This is not a tax increase. It’s simply a continuation of what the taxpayers have already been funding,” says Craig Pletenik, community relations manager with the Phoenix Union High School District. “When you don’t pass an override, in effect you start cutting funding and programs.”

Lowes, the history teacher at the Phoenix Unified School District, said schools have been forced to seek alternate ways to pay for programs because lawmakers misunderstand the resources needed to teach students in the 21st century.

“I think it’s true to say that our Legislature has been hijacked by folks who don’t know the art of compromise,” Lowes said. “There is a small cadre of hard-core supply-siders who have not only social Darwinist attitudes, but also are using faulty math.”

He points the finger at a number of Republicans, including Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills. “He can look students of mine in the eye and tell them directly that the current budget cuts won’t hurt the schools,” Lowes said.

“But will he admit … that schools have already laid off teachers in some districts, that classes are more crowded, and that attrition has crowded them even more?”

Kavanagh responds that the Legislature “has given education as much money as we have to give.”

“This has been one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression, and we’re still trying to give as much as we can,” Kavanagh said. “They should be grateful, rather than resentful. But I guess we’ll find out what the public thinks, based on the election results.”

Pletenik believes that voters in the Phoenix Union district will continue to support their schools in a time of need.

“Our constituency has always done a wonderful job of supporting PUSD, and obviously we hope that continues,” he says. “We have seen what the Legislature thinks of education, and this override gives us the opportunity to see what the citizens think.”

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