Originally Published: November 2, 2015 6 a.m.
I want to take the opportunity to thank the Courier for all of the accurate information that has been posted concerning the Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) bond and override election. There remains some misinformation that I would like address, and the main points of this letter stem from a letter to the editor written by Joe DeCook on Friday, Oct. 30.
I would like to address the concerns relating to teacher salaries vs. other staff. We are proposing an estimated 5 percent increase. Just as teachers have been well below comparison salaries, so have all other staff. We have always stated that any raise would go to the entire staff, including teaching/certified, classified/support employees and administrators. Of the $1 million proposed in the override, it ALL goes to salaries. The breakdown is the following: 57.97 percent to teachers, 35.97 percent to support staff, and 6.06 percent to administrators. The superintendent makes $118,000 a year, which is the lowest in the county and state for a district of similar size. A 5 percent raise equals $5,900 for the year. If you instead divided up this raise among the 699 staff members, they would each receive an additional $8.44 increase per year. This figure is obviously not going to have a huge impact for a staff member vs. a raise for our superintendent. Mr. Howard suggested early in this process that he not get a raise. I adamantly disagreed. This is not about a person. This is about a position and a system that is not based on short term thinking.
"Whole student approach," teacher salary and resources in the classroom have always been, and will always be, the priority of PUSD. Our community has demanded a high level of education that includes music, physical education, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) and reasonable classroom sizes. These are programs and ideals that cost money. The district puts these concepts at the highest regard concerning education.
Ironically, people talk about the 2 percent increase in the state formula that districts are supposed to receive annually. The fact that districts have not received that increase is the reason there was a lawsuit in the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled that schools have been underfunded. During this current fiscal year, the district did receive the first 1.6 percent increase in eight years - amounting to $300,000. This money was extremely helpful and contributed to the construction costs associated with creating new spaces required for self-contained special education classrooms, assisted in maintaining classroom sizes, extracurricular programs as well as maintain the 3 percent raise paid to all staff in 2014-2015. This was the first raise in seven years.
During the nearly 18 months I have been with PUSD we have focused on financial understanding and transparency. This includes budget classes in the evenings for the community and our staff. We have increased our accountability by moving to the Yavapai County Educational Services Agency (YCESA) financial oversight. This means another set of eyes looking at every expense we make. We also have new policies and procedures to make sure that the day to day operations are as efficient as possible with a continual model of revision and change.
PUSD has never overspent the M&O budget and has always used bond money for the stated purpose. If the bond and/or override pass on Tuesday, we will voluntarily create an oversight committee to be an additional layer of transparency and input, and to ensure that the dollars are spent as promised. PUSD has always followed a model of putting children and educators first. PUSD has always been fair and works with an approach of voices, comments, questions, and concerns that matter from each and every stakeholder. This is the PUSD that we, as community members, families, and tax payers should be proud to call our hometown school.
Comments have been made concerning organizations that PUSD participates in. Would this be Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA)? Every school district in Arizona is a member of ASBA, and we pay them approximately $5,000 for their services. ASBA is a resource that provides assistance and oversight for policy, legal guidance and training for school board members.
As has been recommended in the past, for those who want more detail concerning the district budget, please attend a future Budget 101 training class. I am more than willing to go into as much detail as a person would like to go. Let me help you to understand how the funding is derived, the restrictions in which the money can be spent, and the accurate story.
The state has talked about ways to help fund education. While the efforts of the Legislature are ongoing, none put districts where they should be today. The current proposal from the Legislature addresses 30 percent of back-funding to school districts. In the meantime, local communities are urged to vote in support of education via bonds and overrides as 80 percent of all students in school districts across the state of Arizona are funded by a bond and/or override. Over 150 school districts have asked for bonds and/or overrides this year.
Every fund the district receives is on the Annual Financial Report (AFR). It is prepared by myself, approved by the superintendent and school board, reviewed by the YCESA, annual auditors, and finally by the Arizona Auditor General. Anything other than the M&O funds and capital funds are restricted. They may only be used for the intended purpose. The selling of a building can only be used for large capital items and not salaries. Student activities fundraising must be used by the students and not to offset district expenses. Gifts and donations money is required by law to be spent for the exact purposes in which it was gifted. Federal funds must be pre-approved programs to be spent for the purpose of the program. Tax credits can only be used for extracurricular activities that charge a fee, and must go directly to the program designated by the individual taxpayer.
In regard to the concern that "funded administrative and operational costs are up," costs rise regardless of student population. Has your electric or water bill gone up in the last eight years? It has for PUSD as well. So we may look at how costs have changed to create larger pieces or smaller pieces of the proverbial pie. However, many of those costs are not controlled by PUSD. For example, new teachers with no experience get paid less than teachers that have experience - shifting the instructional portion of the pie. In addition, the rules for what is considered "educational instruction dollars" have changed. It includes teachers but not utilities. Ultimately, politics has determined that many services required for students are not considered classroom dollars (buses, lunch, custodial, secretaries, principals, occupational therapists, speech, etc.)
PUSD is a declining enrollment district. We have lost students to new charter schools as well as to the economics in Prescott. But I need to make something clear. Declining enrollment is not because PUSD is doing a bad job. PUSD is amazing, engaging, and devoted to make a difference for every child, every day. I would invite everyone to join me and walk the halls together; any school, any time; non-educator to non-educator, and you will see exactly what I am talking about. I would like the educational experience you experience to speak for itself. You will be amazed!
I have grown to love this community and PUSD. Yet many letters opposing the bond/override are by people I have never met, never had the pleasure to sit down and talk with, and never had the opportunity to bounce ideas off of. I would love to do that. Let's walk a building and see education at work. We will also pay attention to the condition of the buildings and take a ride on one of our school buses. Then we can go have a cup of coffee (my treat and not on the districts dime), and have a one on one conversation concerning budgets. After that, I believe your thoughts will change, and most importantly, you will be proud: proud of the district, proud of the students, proud of the teachers, proud of the administrators, and proud of the quality product that PUSD produces day in and day out to make this entire community a better place.
Kevin Dickerson is chief financial officer of Prescott Unified School District.