By Philip Haldiman
There is now a clearer picture as to what voters can expect to be on the November ballot in terms of funding options for the Peoria Unified School District, and it won’t be a bond, which funds capital projects such as schools.
The Citizens’ Bond and Override Advisory Committee has recommended a maintenance and operations override increase to 15% with the same categories as the current override, with additional funds for student and staff safety. The current override, which covers things such as programs and employee wages, was approved by voters in 2015.
If the board is not happy with that option, the committee provided a second option of a maintenance and operations override renewal at 13% with the same categories as the current override.
The board has thrown its support behind an override rather than a bond, but they are split on the amount of the override.
Governing board members in support of the 15% override, which would increase a tax based on assessed home values, are President Monica Ceja Martinez, David Sandoval and Corey Underhill. Governing board members in support of the 13% override renewal, which would keep the tax the same, are Beverly Pingerelli and Judy Doane.
Under the current 13% override a homeowner with a home value of $100,000 pays $145 in taxes annually. Under the proposed 15% override, it is estimated to increase to $168 annually, or about $2 per month.
Superintendent Linda Palles Thompson said the difference between the two options is about $4 million in the district’s budget annually.
The board will make a final decision May 30.
“What I am hearing is that you are comfortable with not having a bond right now and you are comfortable with some sort of an override whether it be the recommendation of 13 or 15,” she said.
“What I would like to do is this: You can be on either side of the issue we are talking about — one would be a continuance and one would be a raise … What I am hoping for is for the board to be unified in what you are able to present. A 3-2 vote is fine but it would be nice for our community to see that we were able to be unified in what we present. But the key to all of this is to pass this whatever this is that we are presenting. That, to me, is most critical.”
Not an easy sale
Peoria Unified voters rejected a $189 million bond in 2018 and a $198 bond in 2016 to fund technology, school improvements and new schools, among others. With those fails, the district is nearing a funding gap from a voter approved 2012 bond that will be fully expended over the next two fiscal years.
Committee member Annette McCarty said this year’s committee built on the information provided last year, in addition to a public opinion survey from more than 400 Peoria Unified voters that provided data to better understand community priorities now.
About 73% of respondents stated student safety and well-being are a top priority for PUSD voters, according to the study. Also, about 66% said they would support a bond and about 55% would support an override, however the chances of voters approving both if they made it to the ballot, decreased to just under 50%
“What I want to relay is that the study showed support for education at all levels of our voting community,” Ms. McCarty said. “It is interesting because it seems the bond would have been what we recommended, but when you look at the categories of what they supported, the building of school structures was lower even though it was still cast high. Items like student safety, [Career Technical Education], those items were higher — and the community does not realize that maintenance and operations is what funds those things.”
An override would fund safety programs and better pay for employees, while a bond would not do this. The committee placed a priority on attracting and retaining teachers to the district. Committee member Amanda Wahl said compensation reports state PUSD employees get eight to 18% less than peer districts.
With a 13% continuation, Ms. Wahl said, the district would have to lower funding for things such as assistant principals, nurses and all-day kindergarten in order to find the funding for safety and staff compensation.
She added having a fifth grader made it hard for her not to vote for a bond, but she worried about putting both on the ballot.
The committee’s recommendation will give the district another year to come before voters with a comprehensive bond in 2020 that will lead PUSD into the future, while an override now can be put toward needed new counselors and suicide prevention, she said.
“One of the best things we can do is attract talent,” Ms. Wahl said.
Voters in PUSD were split on the direction K-12 education is heading — 46% in the total right direction, 34.3% in the total wrong direction and 19.7% didn’t know or refused, according to the public opinion study. Ms. Doane said the balance is to build the trust of the community and give PUSD students what they need at the same time. But she was not sure raising taxes for a 15% override builds trust.
“I personally have to save money every month because of my tax burden. I just know how it is to live on that edge, and the 15% override will hurt families that are on the edge,” Ms. Doane said. “I’m looking at this from the perspective of people who are struggling now and how this will affect them.”
Ms. Ceja Martinez said she is disappointed that two bonds have failed and an increase in taxes might keep someone from supporting the safety and education of a child.
“I would bet my life that no community member would say a child’s life is not worth an increase in taxes, so I would seriously have this board consider a 15% override,” she said.
“The one thing I thought I would never experience sitting on the dais is getting a call from my PR director or superintendent saying a child has taken his life. If you tell me that a counselor intervention specialist is not going to prevent that or the data shows having one of those would have prevented it, I am willing to put my life and salary on that. And for that, I have stood on this board at no cost. It is a volunteer position.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is an override?
An override is a voter-approved initiative that creates additional tax revenue to fund operations for school districts. An override allows a district to increase its budget by a certain percent of the state formula.
In November 2015, the Peoria Unified community voted for a 13 percent maintenance and operations budget override to fund such areas as assistant principals, existing class sizes, school nurses, physical education, arts education, reading programs, instructional coaches and the gifted education program. The governing board will consider either a continuance of the 13% override or a 15% override to include additional funds for staff and student safety, May 30.