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Thu, Aug. 22

Prescott Unified School District budget override, bond: Where will the money go?

PRESCOTT - School officials in Prescott want voters to give them the go-ahead with a 14-year, $15 million general obligation bond, combined with a budget override that will add about $6 million to the district's maintenance and operations budget over seven years.

From day one, district officials said it's a bare-bones proposal. They started by looking at the property tax rate for the district's current bond, which was passed in 2004, and will expire at the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year.

In the final year of the 2004 bond, residential property taxpayers will pay 28 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That's already a reduction in taxes, as taxpayers paid 35 cents per $100 of assessed for residential properties in the previous nine years.

If voters reject the district's bond and override, the line for PUSD will disappear from their tax bills. But school officials are asking to keep it, and under the current proposal it will stay below the current year's rates.

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

BUDGET OVERRIDE

When school officials started asking community members for input, they learned many would support an override, as long as taxes didn't go up from current rates, according to district Chief Financial Officer Kevin Dickerson.

The proposal does that by seeking a lower bond amount - about half the amount of the 2004 bond - and spread over 14 years. For the first seven years, school officials are asking voters to allow them to exceed the state's funding formula, with local taxpayers picking up the difference.

The override is earmarked for teacher recruiting and retention. School officials said the bulk will go to teacher salaries.

The average salary for a teacher in PUSD is less than $37,000. Prescott has one of the lowest rates for teacher salaries in the nation.

Teacher salaries have sunk so low that StartClass.com listed Prescott 14th on its recent publication of "The 25 Worst-Paying Cities for High School Teachers."

While Arizona ranks 28th in the nation for teacher salaries, PUSD actually falls below 50th ranked South Dakota.

It means teachers can add a couple thousand dollars to their salary by going to schools in Prescott Valley. They get a few thousand dollars more if they go to Phoenix, and the numbers keep rising if they leave Arizona.

It's created an exodus of teachers from PUSD.

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

GENERAL OBLIGATION BOND

Dickerson said if voters approve the $15 million bond, the district won't sell all the bond at once. Rather, they'll be spread across the 14-year bond period, meaning the district will sell a portion of the bond and have them nearly paid off before the next bond sale.

School buses make up the biggest piece of the bond proposal. There are enough buses in the district, and they all run, but repair costs are beginning to rise. The average bus in the district's fleet has more than 250,000 miles.

"Our buses are costing us more to maintain than they're worth," Dickerson said, adding that they're safe, but old.

The district's proposal includes 19 standard school buses at an average price of $173,786, six special needs buses at an average cost of $178,898 and three special activity buses with an average price of $176,454. The total price tag for buses: more than $4.9 million.

Bus purchases are spread over several years to prevent the problem the district now faces. Dickerson said the plan is to buy 10 buses every four years.

The next item on the district's list of bond funding is roofs, again spread over several years. Some roofs, like the high school's main classroom building, need immediate attention, but others have a few more years before they'll need to be replaced.

The most expensive roofing job is the high school, which is actually several buildings, and carries a price tag of more than $2.2 million. Also on the list: $325,000 for Abia Judd, $648,800 for Granite Mountain, $132,200 for Lincoln and $227,816 for Mile High.

If the district doesn't sell Washington and Miller Valley schools, the district still needs to keep the buildings in repair. The cost for a new roof at Washington is $85,400, and at Miller Valley it's $272,500.

A few other roofs around the district need maintenance and repairs, bringing the total price tag for roofs to nearly $4 million.

School officials marked $3 million of the bond for heating and air conditioning upgrades and converting the district to LED lights. Together, Dickerson said he expects the changes will save the district about $300,000 annually.

Miscellaneous facility upgrades and replacement costs come it at $1.2 million. The big item is upgrading fire and intercom systems across the district, with a $1 million price tag. Also on the list: painting and sealing building exteriors for $154,000, a $30,000 hydro-scrubber with camera, three lawn mowers at $22,500 each, a trailer for $4,500 and a $6,000 welding machine.

In addition to replacing the roofs and sealing the walls, school officials said they need to replace floors across the district. The total price tag is $467,700. A breakdown of that figure shows cost estimates of $60,500 for Abia Judd, $20,000 for central kitchen, $10,000 for child study services, $30,000 for the district offices, $7,500 for facilities, $65,000 for Granite Mountain, $56,000 for Lincoln, $49,500 for the high school, $54,000 for Mile High and $55,200 for Taylor Hicks. School officials also included new flooring at Dexter, if the district doesn't sell it, estimated at $60,000.

More than a half-million of the bond is marked for technology replacement, again with those costs spread over the 14-year bond period. The list includes replacing Chromebooks, desktop computers, servers, routers, security cameras and a phone system.

District food service's piece of the bond is $245,125. The list includes warming trays and upgrades to stoves, ovens and refrigerators.

Rounding out the list, the district added repairs to the JTED building at the high school for $25,000, locker repairs at the middle school for $155,500, and replacement of desks and chairs for $102,560.

Add it all up, and the district's list for how to spend the bond comes to more than $14.6 million, leaving a little over $300,000 for contingency and inflation.

"We're bare-bones," Howard said. "We don't want fluff in here."

He also noted the state allows the district to bond for as much as $80 million, but school officials are asking for less than one-sixth that amount.

ON THE BALLOT

The district will have a total of four items on the November ballot. One is for the override and one for the bond.

Also on the ballot, the district is asking voter approval to sell Washington and Miller Valley schools, both of which closed at the end of the last academic year. If approved, the buildings will be put on the market, along with the already approved district offices and Dexter school. Any revenue from building sale and lease is limited on its use, essentially only for capital purchases.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9305.

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