Mesa, Chandler Gilbert voters OK school districts' bond, override measures

 Voters approved all East Valley school districts’ bond issue and budget override requests, according to unofficial results posted today by the County recorder.

Even Mesa Public Schools this time saw victory for its 15 percent budget override – one year after it lost a similar election – although its 54 to 46 percent margin of victory was the smallest among all the districts’ results.

Even so, Mike Hutchinson, East Valley Partnership vice president and chairman of the political action committee that worked for passage of the measure, hailed the vote.

"Last year there were two Mesa Public Schools items on a very lengthy ballot. The $300 M bond request was approved and the budget increase was defeated," he said. "With only one item on this year’s ballot, the Yes for Mesa campaign was able to really focus on telling the story about the need for additional budget capacity for the schools. A key factor was the work of hundreds of volunteers who participated in a wide variety of grassroots voter education activities across the School District. Their months of hard work led to excellent voter turnout and the great result for the students and the dedicated employees of the Mesa Public Schools."

 Turnout was relatively light in all the East Valley districts’ all-mail election, with only about a quarter of all ballots that were sent to voters being returned.

Districts that saw approval of their money requests also included Chandler Unified, Gilbert Public Schools, Higley Unified and Tempe Elementary.

Chandler Unified voters okayed by a 62 to 38 percent margin a $290-million bond – the largest in the district’s history. It will help pay for construction of a new elementary school in Gilbert, where the district covers the western edge of town, and a new high school in eastern Chandler. 

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

Gilbert Public Schools also won approval by a margin of 62 to 38 percent for a big bond request – $100 million. But voters there approved a 15 percent budget override by only 55 to 45 percent.

Higley Unified voters gave their blessing to two district money questions. By a 65 to 35 percent margin, they approved a repurposing of money from a 2015 capital bond and voted 63 to 37 percent in favor of continuation of a budget override.

Tempe Elementary voted by a similar 2-1 margin in favor of continuing and increasing a budget override.

Mesa’s money request posed dire consequences for the state‘s largest school district had voters rejected it with officials projecting the need to cut $37 million over the next three years if the override isn’t approved.

The bond issues and budget overrides were signs 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 argued that a 15 percent override is needed in order to stay afloat.

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

Like many of the other districts that sought overrides, Mesa 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 said.

The district also plans 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 for Mesa Public Schools, 10 people – including Mayor John Giles – submitted arguments in support for the override increase while the former Mesa 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.

The Tribune had reports that advocates of Downey had tried to stir up voter rejection of the Mesa override in revenge for her downfall from a post she held for 19 years.

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.

Thompson attributed last year’s override 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 its $290 million; these include renovating playground equipment, repairing roofs, buying security cameras, and building another elementary school.

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

CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry 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 said 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 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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