By Philip Haldiman
Parents, teachers and administrators have become very familiar with the phrase “back to the drawing board” when it comes to Peoria Unified School District trying to pass a bond to fund needed school improvements and new schools.
Many agreed that misconceptions about how school funding works was a big factor in the failure of the most recent and past bond; add to that a strong opposition from the surrounding senior community as well as other factors.
But ultimately, supporters of the failed bond said children will go without needed repairs to infrastructure, experience less access to improving technology and should expect more overcrowding in some schools.
Kacie Franklin, chair of the PAC that supported the bond efforts this year, said she thinks the biggest factors in the bond not passing were a lack of true understanding of the need for the bond, lack of understanding of the actual financial impact the bond would have on individual households, and the opposition’s insinuations the district was not stewarding finances well.
The $189.2 million bond would have funded needed capital projects such as new construction, as well as repairs and equipment replacement. Ms. Franklin said it would not have funded teacher salaries.
“I think ignorance of what the bond actually would have served and how school funding works cost us,” Ms. Franklin said. “There has been so much buzz this year about education funding, but there’s not a lot of true understanding about the real actualities of it.”
A portion of the bond would have funded $83 million for facility modernization such as safety standard implementation, restroom remodels, roofing enhancements, upgrades to elementary performing arts stages and all seven high school performing arts centers, with additional facility upgrades based on the age of the facility.
Melissa Girmscheid, physics teacher at Centennial High School, said having to leverage property taxes to fund public education puts extra stress on the average taxpayer, but until the Arizona State Legislature determines a method for funding both the capital and maintenance and operations needs of public schools, bonds and overrides will be the manner in which communities can invest in their own futures.
“I believe that education is key in all things, and that educating oneself on the mechanisms of public school funding makes one a truly informed voter,” Ms Girmscheid said. “Our district’s budget is open for viewing on our website and all governing board meetings are open to the public and streamed online. The knowledge is readily available, yet few take advantage. If we are to truly have an educational renaissance in our state, then we need the public to decide that the public schools which educate their children and their neighbors are important enough to pay attention.”
Senior citizens make up about 16 percent of the population in Peoria, according to the U.S. Census.
Some residents of Sun City and Sun City West, which border Peoria, are exempt from secondary property taxes on local schools as a result of numerous school-tax levies defeated by a large senior citizen voting bloc decades ago, ending in tax exemptions, either through de-annexation or other means.
Consequently, Ms. Franklin said, many age-restricted communities in Peoria feel they should be exempt as well.
She said the bond’s opposition was rooted in several retirement communities from those who believe they should be exempt.
Ms. Franklin said she has spoken to many seniors who feel they should be exempt and has encouraged them to look at the value a great school district brings to the community as a whole: increased property values, better economic growth and outlook, and lowered crime rates.
“I think it’s unfortunate that many chose not to support the measure, but we certainly would be remiss in not appreciating the many who did support us,” she said.
Diane Smith, a resident of the Corte Bella retirement community in a county island near Peoria, said she opposed the bond because homeowners in her area have been paying out the nose while some residents also living on unincorporated land nearby do not have to pay.
Ms. Smith, a former school teacher, said it is taxation by location.
“We never said we don’t want to pay taxes. We want equity. We will never use those schools but we are taxed on them, and we get no services from city where those schools are located,” she said.
2016 vs. 2018
PUSD has traditionally had a good track record in getting bonds on the ballot and approved by voters, until recent years.
This year’s $189 million bond proposal failed by about 6 percent. In 2016, a similar bond of $198 million failed by about 14 percent.
Support Peoria Students, the PAC supporting this bond, had nearly $70,000 in its coffers at the most recent reporting date, Oct. 20. The PAC supporting the bond in 2016 had about $48,000 during the same reporting period.
Both campaigns had strong opposition from the senior community as well as opposition in the form of what some have called the Golden Ticket, a yellow paper distributed and paid for by Legislative District 22 Republican committeemen.
The paper lists a slate of election choices leaning conservative, including a recommendation to vote no on the school bond, stating it is unfair to tax residents for schools that are not justified by the enrollment.
However, Ms. Franklin said the numbers they used from the State Auditor General were accurate based on the reporting time frame, but not current.
“We were the only school district that went out for a bond to have organized opposition like this,” she said. “They unfortunately, chose to use outdated enrollment numbers to skew the perception of the district’s financial stewardship. The governing board receives monthly updates on enrollment, and those numbers show a much larger student body currently.”
A higher voter turnout of 65 percent helped in going from 14 percent to 6 percent, and included a stronger focus on digital marketing, as well as more of a grassroots strategy asking volunteers to help to spread the word, Ms. Franklin said.
If nothing else, Ms. Franklin said, the 2016 election cycle showed that campaigns are not fought or won the same way they have been in the past.
“We passed out more than 25,000 pieces of literature door-to-door, at sporting events, and at other cultural and neighborhood events across the district,” Ms. Franklin said. “There were a lot of competing priorities for volunteers this election season, though, and oftentimes our volunteer base was slim. I think that can absolutely have a negative effect on the efforts.”
From the area north of Bell Road nearly to Lake Pleasant, the city has seen expansive growth in the last 15 years, leading to overcrowding in some schools and the redrawing of district boundaries. As a result, northern Peoria high schools Liberty High School, 9621 W. Speckled Gecko Drive, and Sunrise Mountain High School, 21200 N. 83rd Ave., are at capacity, with more schools projected to follow suit.
The bond proposal included $75.9 million to support this growth in purchasing land and new construction for one high school as well as construction of a new facility for the Peoria Traditional School.
The district will have to do without those schools for now.
Additionally, district officials said the state has cut capital funding to the district and to the state’s School Facilities Board which distributes funds for new schools or improvements to existing facilities.
Cap it off with no chance of a new bond reaching the ballot until November 2019, Ms. Girmscheid said the district will need to get creative in bridging the gaps.
Schools in the north will probably have their boundaries redrawn again so school attendance numbers can be balanced and schools district-wide will go without repairs and equipment replacements, she said.
“We will have to tighten our belts. I’ve had to do so in my own home, but this type of budget adjustment is not akin to canceling cable or limiting restaurant visits. This is more like selling a second car or downsizing to an apartment. There will be some very tough decisions to be made in the coming months,” Ms. Girmscheid said. “Restrooms that are unsafe for use by students will remain closed, duct-taped musical instruments will remain in use because that’s all we have. Performing arts centers, which have rental income potential, will remain as is and hopefully last a few more years. Safety measures that were included in the bond will have to happen, but from which pot of funding no one yet knows. In all, we will be scrambling as a district to make ends meet while continuing to prepare our kids to shape tomorrow. We can do this, we have to do this, but we need the support of the community, support which has not yet materialized through voting.”
Here is a side-by-side comparison of Peoria Unified School District’s bonds in 2016 and 2018.
Cost: $198 million
Financial: $48,000 in pre-election report
Loss by: 14 percent
Cost: $189 million
Financial: $70,000 in pre-election report
Loss by: 6 percent