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Thu, Oct. 17

'Maintain' is key word in school district's plea for bond, override As old bond retires, new bond & override will not cost taxpayers extra money

PRESCOTT - School officials and supporters of Prescott Unified School District's proposed bond and override know they've got an uphill battle in getting voters to approve the two measures.

"We found a way to do a very small bond and a very small override," PUSD Superintendent Joe Howard said Wednesday, Sept. 9, at a forum hosted by the Abia Judd PTA. "We're using the word 'maintain.'"

Howard explained the proposed 14-year, $15 million bond and seven-year budget override won't cost taxpayers more than they currently pay to the district.

"The ballot language doesn't cover what we're telling you," he said.

Howard said one of the key points not included in the ballot text is the retirement of the district's current bond, passed in 2004.

In the current bond's final year, residential property taxpayers will pay 28 cents per $100 of assessed value. That figure is slightly lower than prior years, and school officials prepared a combined bond and budget override package that replaces the 2004 bond and keeps property tax rates for PUSD at or below the current rates.

Howard said if voters approve the measure in November, "What you pay for PUSD will continue."

Presenters at the forum noted that when the district last asked voters to approve a bond and override in a failed 2013 effort, voter turnout among 18- to 45-year-olds was 21.6 percent.

They said that figure showed two things. First, that the age demographic that includes most of PUSD's parents failed to participate in the election. And second, the last bond was decided largely by Prescott's older, retired population.

The superintendent outlined the proposed capital expensed to be covered by the $15 million bond, primarily funding a 10-year capital plan to repair roofs and floors, upgrade heating and air conditioning, and replace technology and other equipment.

He noted that state law sets PUSD's bonding capacity $80 million - well beyond the current ask.

"We're barebones," he said. "We don't want fluff in here."

Nearly $5 million is slated to pay for new buses.

Howard said the average bus in PUSD has traveled 250,000 miles or more.

"They are safe for our kids, but a lot of them are breaking down and we're putting a lot of money into repairs," he said.

Arizona is among the lowest in the nation for per-pupil funding. At $8,490 in 2011-12, the Grand Canyon State was 51st in the nation, including all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia.

Among the states and territories ranking 50th or lower on per-pupil spending, only Idaho, Arizona and Oklahoma decreased per-pupil spending below 2005 levels. Most states increased per-pupil spending over the same period.

It's in that reality of decreased per-pupil spending by the state that 80 percent of school districts in Arizona augment state funds with local bonds and overrides.

PUSD's proposed override - estimated at approximately $6 million over seven years - is slated to increase teacher and staff wages across the district.

"We're bleeding teachers in this district, and that's not OK," Abia Judd Principal Clark Tenney said.

He recalled when he started teaching at Prescott High School seven years ago, most the district's teachers had been with the district more than 10 years.

"We've lost 50 percent of our teaching staff in the last 3-4 years," Howard said.

He noted PUSD's average teacher salaries are below the state average, which are in turn lower than the national average.

Abia Judd PTA President Bekah Kleinman put it in more stark terms, explaining that Arizona ranks 28th in the nation on teacher salaries. She noted PUSD's average teacher salary of $36,390 is 22 percent below the state average, putting it more than $3,000 below 50th-ranked South Dakota.

"We've got to do better for these folks," Tenney said. "We're proud to be one of the highest-performing districts in Arizona, but it's not going to last with people leaving right and left."

PUSD's low teacher salaries were further demonstrated recently when StartClass.com listed Prescott 14th on its recent publication of "The 25 Worst-Paying Cities for High School Teachers."

"We want to put every penny of that override into staff," Howard said.

The actual amount of the seven-year budget override will be a percentage of the district's budget, which is determined in large part on school enrollment and any legislative action that changes state funding formulas.

School officials suggest the override will add about $1 million to the district's budget over its first five years, another $666,667 in the sixth year and $333,333 in the seventh year.

Howard said those figures indicate the district would be looking at salary increases of about 5 percent.

Once the override concludes after the 2022-23 fiscal year, taxpayers would continue paying for the bond, costing about 19 cents per $100 of assessed value on residential property through the next seven years.

Joining school district officials as speakers in the forum, real estate agent Ryan Lowry offered his anecdotal experience of losing homebuyers after they research the public education system in Prescott.

"You always start to find unintended consequences," he said of the impacts of reduced education funding. "It affects our home prices. It affects the services at the hospital and at other professions."

He said he's seen a direct correlation between home sales and public education funding, and said improvements to schools will increase home values well above the approximately $34 annual tax bill for properties assessed just below $200,000.

A small group of Abia Judd fourth-graders spoke briefly at the Wednesday forum on why the bond and override were important to them.

"A lot of the computers at my school are older and sometimes don't work," Eva Kleinman said. "An override is important to me because we have some of the best teachers in the district."

"I am part of the next generation and I know it's important to support our teachers and our students," Eva Knowlton said.

Later in the meeting, when community members were given a chance to offer comments and ask questions, David Stringer said he hadn't heard much to convince the over-65 voting bloc.

He said children participating in the elections is often seen as gimmicky, and questioned whether supporters of the bond and override would be successful in garnering support among younger voters to counter high turnout among retirees.

Bond and override proponents at the forum acknowledged the need for community outreach before the election on Nov. 3.

"We alone are not going to make this happen," Derek Hewitt said.

Supporters of the bond and override suggested people get involved in the election efforts by volunteering with the Yes Yes For Prescott Education political action committee, online at prescottsos.com.

Parent organizations will host several more forums in the district in September, and a rally at the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 15.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen.

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him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9503.

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