Schools seek community buy in for buildings, buses and books
The 150 elementary and middle school students who attend school in Seligman, Ariz., haven’t had a gym to use for P.E., school plays or community gatherings in five years, when the aging structure was found structurally unsound. Today, it sits closed and fenced off.
With state funding for school building repair and improvements cut by 85 percent since 2008, the district now is turning to local voters to pass a $2.95 million to replace the old gymnasium, said Diane Pritchett, superintendent of the rural Yavapai County district.
Twenty-three Arizona school districts are asking local voters to OK money for campus repairs, maintenance, improvements and construction, as well as school security – needs that state funding has been eliminated for in recent years.
Approval of the bond measures on ballots in the November 8, 2016 general election would give the school districts seeking them the ability to raise a certain amount of money locally through property taxes for set capital projects. Bond money can be used for buses and certain technology purchases as well.
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Local response to reduced capital funding
Passing a bond is one way the local community can make up for some of the Legislature’s cuts in capital funding since the Great Recession, said Dr. Manuel Valenzuela, superintendent of Sahuarita Unified School District, which is seeking a $25 million bond.
The total reduction in capital funding to Arizona school districts by the state Legislature since 2008 is $2,003,948,100, or nearly $2.004 billion, according to Chuck Essigs, executive director, and Anabel Aportela, director of research and student achievement analysis for Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
“In 2008, when state appropriations for school districts’ capital funding fell dramatically, all major repairs and vehicle replacement stopped in the district,” said Dr. Frank Davidson, superintendent of Casa Grande Elementary School District.
Today, the state appropriates just 15 percent of the capital funding to school districts that is stipulated in statute, Davidson said.
That means Casa Grande Elementary, which serves nearly 7,000 Pinal County students, has lost $23 million in capital funding due to these cuts since the Great Recession, and “there is no indication that this funding will be restored anytime soon,” Davidson said.
Casa Grande Elementary is seeking a $44.66 million bond election in November. If it is approved by voters, proceeds would be used to repair and replace facilities throughout the school district, to construct replacement space at a middle school and an elementary school, to replace older buses in the district’s fleet of 70 buses, and provide greater security at the schools, Davidson said.
The average tax rate over the repayment period for the new bond would be ten cents lower than the current secondary property tax rate of 55 cents for existing bond debt.
Repairing older buildings
Safford Unified School District in Graham County has a $4.9 million bond election before voters.
“Many of our school facilities are old and in need up updates and repair,” said Ken VanWinkle, superintendent of the district that serves more than 3,200 students. “We also have a huge concern and desire to make our schools as safe and secure as possible.”
If voters approve the bond, the money be used to construct additions to the Center for the Arts including two classrooms, changing rooms and other improvements; construct, renovate and improve school buildings, facilities, and grounds; replace deteriorated interior building materials and furnishings that have exceeded life expectancy, such as flooring, ceilings, restroom partitions, and built in furniture as well as restore, replace or install security and safety fencing, gates, security cameras, doors, walkways, patios, shade covers, bleachers, parking lots and other structures.
“We believe we have been good and responsible stewards of public money and will continue be so as we move forward. We do what we do in hope of making things better for our students,” VanWinkle said.
Santa Cruz Union High School District in Pinal County is seeking a $7 million bond. The district would replace, repair, update some school facilities, replace or repair roofs on several buildings, renovate the auditorium built in the 1970s and update technology.
“Our community was very good about passing a bond seven years ago. This is our last year of that bond. But you couldn’t do everything with the bond. So we need the second bond to finish the things that need to be done on this campus,” said Orlenda Roberts, superintendent of the district that serves more than 400 students in Eloy, about 50 minutes south of Phoenix.
Those include replacing some air-conditioners and heating units from the 1970s, replacing a wall in the gymnasium that has asbestos in it and repairing or replacing the school’s aging track.
“It’s an old campus, and it needs some work,” Roberts said.
The district can do this and still lower the tax rate for the community, Roberts said.
The district’s current bond costs taxpayers $1.04 per $1,000 assessed value of their home, and the new bond’s tax rate would be 75 cents per $1,000 assessed value.
If voters approve a $15 million bond election for Blue Ridge Unified School District, about $9.4 million in proceeds would be spent for updating schools’ flooring, paint, plumbing, doing repairs and remodeling, said Mike Wright, superintendent of the Navajo County district that serves about 2,200 students.
Research has suggested that creating an appropriate academic learning space is tied to student achievement, Wright said.
“If you’re in an old, worn-out building that’s cold or rickety or in a state of disrepair, that has a pejorative impact on the students’ learning,” Wright said. “I also believe we owe it to our teachers and staff to provide an appropriate learning space.”
Securing campuses is another allowable use of bond money, if Blue Ridge’s bond passes dollars will be allocated for upgrading security to make sure all doors on campus lock from the inside and add cameras around the perimeter.
Funding for new schools
The state’s funding mechanism for new schools is an issue for Sahuarita Unified in Pima County where student enrollment has grown between three to five percent for the past six years.
“In recent years, new construction has not been appropriated for, and even when it is, the timing of that process is far from ideal,” Valenzuela said.
The bond election gives “our constituents a chance to take control of our own destiny in meeting these needs,” Valenzuela said.
If voters approve the bond, about $20 million of proceeds would go toward building a new K-8 school for the district that serves over 6,300 students. About $5 million of bond proceeds would be used to remove 25- to 30-year-old portable school buildings and put new permanent structures in their place.
The impact of the bond on the average home in the district would be about $116 a year, or $9.67 a month. It has been seven years since the last bond in Sahuarita Unified was approved by voters.
Updating an old bus fleet is another priority for Blue Ridge Unified, and if voters approve the measure, the district would use $2.2 million in proceeds to do that.
The district’s buses travel about 1,300 miles a day over rough backroads, and older buses “get about half the fuel economy of a new bus,” Wright said.
“We’re putting somewhere between $150,000 to $200,000 a year in repairs on those old buses, which doesn’t make sense economically,” Wright said.
Safford Unified also would use bond proceeds to replace school buses and vans past their useful life and to be in compliance with current requirements, which will increase students’ safety and decrease repair costs, VanWinkle said.
Replacing older high-mileage buses with newer air-conditioned buses is also a priority for Santa Cruz Union.
“We’re a rural school district so a lot of our miles are not on paved roads, so we need to get new buses that are in better shape and with air-conditioning,” Roberts said. “Right now, we have jugs of iced water for the kids and cups on the bus, because it’s too hot.”
Books, technology and instructional materials
While the majority of bond dollars typically are earmarked for buildings and buses, bonds may also be used for certain technology purchases.
If Blue Ridge’s bond is approved by voters, about $3.4 million in proceeds would go to update technology to provide one-to-one computer access for students.
“Having limited means to be able to incorporate technology really puts our students and teachers at a disadvantage. We want to properly prepare them for the future,” Wright said. “We’re really trying to make a shift to more interactive, project-based learning and teaching experiences and that also requires technology.”
Safford Unified would also use bond proceeds to buy instructional technology and upgrade network infrastructure.
If voters approve the bond, Santa Cruz Union would use some proceeds to buy new computers and technology for students.
“Many high schools and even some elementary schools are going to 1-to-1 devices for kids and we have labs. We have Internet throughout our campus, but we really need to bring our school into what is currently being done to prepare our kids for what they’re going to face in the workplace,” Roberts said.