Ballot box

"Mesa Public Schools is hoping voters will approve increasing its override to 15 percent after they turned down an identical request last November."

Mesa and Chandler registered voters will be getting ballots this week for all-mail voting on their school districts’ request for more money.

The Chandler Unified School District is asking voters this year to approve a $290-million bond – the largest in the district’s history.  

Meanwhile, Mesa Public Schools is hoping voters will approve increasing its override to 15 percent after they turned down an identical request last November. 

Because this is an all-mail election, all registered voters will receive a ballot regardless of whether they are on the early-voter registry. Tomorrow, Oct. 7, is the last day to register to vote and only those voters living within each district’s boundaries can cast a ballot.

Voters can drop off their ballots at drop boxes or mail them in by Oct. 30. Those who want to vote in person can go to a ballot replacement center on Election Day. For locations of boxes and centers, go to recorder.maricopa.gov/pollingplace/

Chandler, Arizona’s second-largest school district, says it needs the bond money to accommodate the 3,000 extra students projected to come to the district within the next decade. 

The district’s already in the process of building another high school near Gilbert and Ocotillo roads, which may be funded in part through the proposed bond money. 

Mesa’s money request poses dire consequences for the state‘s largest school district if voters reject it.

Mesa officials project having to cut $37 million over the next three years if the override isn’t approved.

Both Chandler and Mesa are among 26 Maricopa County districts seeking voter approval of either bond issues or budget overrides – a sign of the continuing financial struggles of Arizona public schools in the face of underfunding by the state. 

Although MPS has been operating under a 10 percent override since 1995, district officials argue that a 15 percent override is needed in order to stay afloat. 

The additional 5 percent would provide $54 million per year for five years. 

If approved, homeowners with a property valued at $100,000 can expect to pay $15.50 per month in taxes. 

“At the end of the day it’s a continuation and extinction of local control we’ve had in place since ‘95,” said Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson. “The reason for the increase is that the costs of things are going up.” 

The override request comes at a time when the district is struggling to meet the requirements of the 2016 voter-approved minimum wage referendum.

The current override covers only 8.7 percent of the district’s employees, which serve more than 63,000 students.

“The primary thing for us is that the minimum wage increase is making it hard for us to maintain a minimum wage for our classified employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” Thompson added.

The school district hopes to funnel more money toward increased school security staffing, attracting and retaining quality teachers with better pay and keeping class sizes low. 

Additional counselors and programs for staff and student social and emotional support are also on the forefront. 

“We have amazing programs,” Thompson said. “We just keep trying to make people aware of our programs – from the fine arts to athletic programs – and that all of those things are creating well-rounded, young individuals who are ready to come into our community.”  

In the voter informational pamphlet, 10 people, including Mayor John Giles, submitted arguments in support for the override increase while the former Mesa Public Schools Governing Board president wrote the sole argument against it. 

The mayor, whose five children all attended Mesa schools, said quality education was important for the city’s overall economic health. 

“Successful neighborhood schools are the backbone of a strong community, and Mesa’s school system is one of our city’s crown jewels,” he wrote. 

 “Mesa has been successful in attracting thousands of jobs and millions in economic investment. It is no secret that one of the key components to our economic success has been the quality of our schools,” Giles added. “We must keep up this positive momentum.” 

Former board president Ben Smith cited the refusal of MPS to look for ways to improve efficiency and the over-reliance of the district on a series of five budget overrides dating back for 24 years.

If MPS were to hire an independent efficiency expert to review operations, “I am confident they would find the $38 million they are looking for’’ in the override election, Smith said.

“It was their unwillingness to innovate. They want to keep things the same,’’ Smith continued. “They are so dependent on the overrides.’’

Smith also is a strong supporter for former East Valley Institute of Technology Superintendent Sally Downey, who was forced out of her position of 19 years earlier this year by a new school board.

Smith blames Mesa school officials for having a hand in that ouster because of their efforts to increase the district’s vocational education at EVIT’s expense.

Thompson disputed Smith’s arguments against the override, stressing the district’s financial transparency.  

“By any measure you can find, you’ll find we are efficiently run,” he stated. “In an organization that is as large as ours, is it possible we could be more efficient in certain areas? Of course.”

“But to argue we’re not efficiently run is a disservice to the work that Mesa has done to run its budget as conservatively and appropriately as possible in terms of what we have available,” he continued. 

This year’s November election is the district’s second attempt in a row to try and pass the budget increase. 

Mesa’s lost its override request by 2,600 votes last year even as it won a bond vote by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Thompson attributed last year’s failure to confusing ballot language.

“While we call it a budget override, on the ballot it’s referred to as budget increase. I think that was at the heart of confusion,” he said. “We’re looking to change the conversation with the community to say we’re talking about a budget increase so that our language tracks with what they find in the mail.”

In Chandler, more than 40 different uses have been identified by that district for how it might spend $290 million; these include renovating playground equipment, repairing roofs, buying security cameras, and building another elementary school. 

A significant portion of the bond has been reserved for general upkeep and maintenance to the district’s 43 schools.

CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry has said the bond is necessary to supplement the $127 million in state funding that’s been lost for the last 11 years. 

As the district continues growing in size, CUSD says it will need more funding for capital projects and improvements.

“We know we need new schools and one of the reasons we know that is because our secondary arena is growing, and our promise has always been to keep class sizes low and to pay our staff well,” Berry said at a recent meeting.

Furthermore, the $196-million bond that voters passed in 2015 only has about $17 million left to spend. 

CUSD claims passage of the $290-million bond won’t impact the district’s most recent tax rate of $1.28 per $100,000 assessed valuation. 

“With the passage of the bond program, this rate is expected to stay constant based on current projections,” CUSD wrote in an information pamphlet. 

According to the Arizona Auditor General’s Office, CUSD spends about $9,075 per pupil – an amount that’s about $900 less than the state average. Auditors further assessed the district’s financial stress as “low” and found CUSD to not be overspending its budget. 

The mayors of Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek have all endorsed CUSD’s bond request.

“Without the school bond, the schools will fall behind in their ability to give us first-rate education,” Queen Creek Mayor Gail Barney said in a video produced by Yes for Chandler Students, a pro-bond political committee. 

CUSD Governing Board President Barbara Mozdzen said, “Failure to pass this bond will seriously jeopardize or limit several essential projects needed for our district’s continued growth and impact class size.”

No arguments against the Chandler bond election were submitted to the Maricopa County School Superintendent’s Office.

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