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Fri, Dec. 06

Column: Our kids are worth more than 9 cents a day

As the ballots begin to arrive in your mailboxes, I believe it is my role to share the background, the process and the facts in regard to Prescott Unified School District's (PUSD's) request to go to the voters for a bond and override.  Hopefully my perspective can clear up some misinformation as well as outline some of the background that got us to the point where we have come to our voters.

A friend and PUSD parent asked me yesterday, "Why do you do this job?" She looked at me like I was crazy. I suppose this is a good place to start this story. There are many times when, like for many of you, it does not feel like a job. It is what we do, intrinsically,  like looking after our families. 

I grew up a superintendent's kid in PUSD and graduated a Badger, so to a great extent, it is in my blood.  It is instinct.  PUSD is a part of me. That said, I don't know very many people, including myself who grew up wanting to be a superintendent. I am a teacher in my heart. I got into the profession because my teachers and my parents didn't tell me about the vital importance of teaching to a community, they showed me. I do this because, to me, teaching children and preparing them for the future is the most important job there is.

There are many things that I am proud of in PUSD.  Our students are amazing and can compete with the best of the best. Last year, Prescott High School supported our senior students with $7.4 million in college scholarships. We have one of the highest per capita Flinn Scholarships awarded in the state, with 19 total since the inception of the program in 1986. Our artists, musicians, athletes, engineers, mechanics (I could go on) thrive. In one calculus class last year, 29 of 33 students scored the highest possible score on the Advanced Placement test and all of them scored high enough to earn college credit. There are many more success stories like this to share. Just ask a PHS alum or parent, or read the Courier. There are articles almost daily reporting something great that happening in PUSD.

What I am most proud of as a district administrator is that we have worked as a team with our amazing staff and maintained the integrity of our district. This has been done during the toughest times of our existence in the past 100 years. What do I mean by "maintained the integrity of our district?"  Among many other things, our staff and students have worked hard to maintain our high achievement through all of the budget challenges in our state and community. PUSD has continued to score at the top levels in the county and state through it all. Our community has demanded, and we have listened, that we maintain our optimal class sizes. In addition, our community has stated over and again that it is our job to produce well-rounded children for the future. Our students are intellectually brilliant, amazing musicians, incredible artists, talented athletes and most importantly, strong future citizens.

It is no secret that Arizona continues to be among the lowest of states in the nation (if not, the lowest) in funding allocated to our students.  Because of this, 80 percent of the school districts in Arizona are supported at the community level by a bond and/or override. Many ask how the remaining 20 percent of districts make it happen.  The answer is that those districts are struggling for survival. Many have lost their experienced teaching staff and their test scores have plummeted.

The most important point that I could make in regard to what we are asking the voters for is this:  both  the bond and the override that we are requesting are designed to be small enough to keep the tax rate from PUSD at the same level it has been at since 2004. This is because the 2004 bond will be paid off before a potential new bond and override would take effect. Bottom line:  no increase in your taxes related to PUSD.

This equates to $34.07 per year on the average assessed value home ($195,000) in the district boundaries.  That is 9 cents per day, which is what we have all been paying since 2004; If both bond and override are approved, this amount would not change.

The proposed bond and override amounts are a direct result of significant work in the community since the failed 2013 bond/override. We have asked taxpayers, community members and community groups what they felt they could support. The district held three community meetings with over 50 diverse members in the spring of 2015. We shared our 14 year capital plan of needs, as well as staff turnover data and salary comparisons for teachers, administration and support staff. All are far below the state and national averages. We also met with individuals and groups who opposed the 2013 ballot measures to hear their perspectives. The proposed bond/override is based on the advice of these people.

The bond and override amounts that PUSD is requesting are both one-half the amount asked for in the 2013 failed bond/override. Much of the community feedback was that there was too much "fluff" in 2013 (ex. water-saving astroturf and a community/high school technology lab.) We took anything that could be considered "fluff" out and what we have presented is a "bare-bones" plan. We also addressed community concerns that the 2013 ballot measures were too vague. Our current bond and override request comes straight from our 10-year capital needs/repairs list.

We are also very encouraged that all three of our representatives, Steve Pierce, Karen Fann, and Noel Campbell, each wrote pro statements supporting both the bond and override, explaining that there continues to be no support at the state level to increase education funding. All three participated in the community committee and have continued to support this request to the voters throughout the process.

PUSD is asking for a 4.66 percent override.  (This is a percentage of our district budget, not your property tax.)  Although PUSD has the capacity to request for up to a 15 percent override from the voters, we felt that the 4.66 percent would be manageable, and would keep both bond and override at the 2004 bond level currently being paid. This rate produces $1 million per year for five years, tapering off to two-thirds of that in the second-to-last year, and one-third in the final year.  The override would give all PUSD staff an equal salary increase of approximately 5 percent. This would include support staff and administration who also fall below state and national averages.  

Teacher quality is one of the most important areas that we can focus on in regard to our students' success. This said, we are in a statewide teacher shortage crisis. PUSD teacher salaries begin at $32,000 and the average is $36,396.  The state average is $49,885 and the national average $56,383. South Dakota, which ranks 50th in the nation for teacher pay, averages $36,295.  Currently, we are 22 percent below the state average. (Salary data from National Center for Educational Statistics.) The override we are requesting would put $1 million per year into our budget, and at best bring our teachers to up to 17 percent below the state average.  

PUSD is asking for a $15 million bond to be paid off in 14 years. As previously stated, this is a bare bones proposal and simply based on our 10-year capital plan.  Prior to 2007, when our capital allocation was partially funded by the state, we were able to fund these strategic capital plans on our own. This is not the case in 2015, for any public school district. In the past six years, the district has not received more than $12,000,000 in building renewal funds as indicated by Arizona Students FIRST legislation. In addition, through state budget reductions, district capital funds for facilities and technology have been reduced by an additional $5,400,000 over the past five years. This bond includes maintenance of taxpayer-owned bus fleets and technology. Most organizations have a staggered replacement plan to be fiscally responsible with these types of assets as well as a maintenance plan for the roofs, floors and operations of their buildings. These items are what we are asking our taxpayers to approve.  PUSD has the capacity to ask for $80 million in bond monies.  But, after listening to our community, we are being as frugal as possible in order to keep both of these ballot measures as low as currently funded school taxes.

PUSD plans to voluntarily create a Community Oversight Committee to review the procurement process and spending to ensure that the intention of the voters is being met.  This is in addition to the multiple layers of auditing that every public school district goes through each year. If money is saved over the life of the bond, or if a building is sold, the oversight committee may redirect those monies to needed projects. The committee may even recommend to return monies to the taxpayers as has been done by PUSD in the past. The elected governing board would give final approval on any of these measures.

Please vote! All you need to do is take the big envelope out of your mail box, put some marks on it, lick it, sign it and put it back in the mailbox. (Postage is provided.)

Our students are our future. Good schools have a direct positive impact on local economy and property value. Most importantly, our kids are amazing, and they are worth more than 9 cents a day. Let us all remember the famous Arizona Highways cover of August 1985, titled "Prescott: Everybody's Hometown" (Google it). The cover featured the courthouse and gazebo with the young Yetman family picnicking on the lawn.  This is a picture of a community:  a young family, kids playing, folks strolling, an old cowboy on the bench, and our beautiful town as the canvas.  This is why many us moved here, or stayed here. Prescott is the one of the greatest communities in America.  Children need to remain in the center of that picture now and forever.

I will end with a relevant Greek proverb: Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Let us give our children the gift of our vision.

Joseph W. Howard is superintendent of the Prescott Unified School District.

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