Originally Published: July 14, 2016 5:55 a.m.
PRESCOTT – After a year where beloved schools were closed, staff and students were lost, and low pay challenged morale, Prescott Unified School District’s pendulum is swinging in a forward direction.
An infusion of more state and local dollars, a renewed vision and potential increase in enrollment has school leaders encouraged as they look ahead.
“We’re very excited about our future,” said Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard, the day after the Governing Board voted Tuesday, July 12, to approve a 2016-17 school operating budget of $21.836 million, some $600,000 less than last year. The vote was 4-0 with Vice President Greg Mengarelli absent.
For taxpayers, the primary tax rate will drop minutely from $2.79 to $2.76 per $100 of property valuation.
Part of Howard’s enthusiasm is local and state citizenry’s reckoning with the need to embrace public education with more dollars than it has over the past decade or more. Skepticism over whether or not Prescott, known as one of the state’s premier retirement communities, could pass a bond and override as it did in November stands as proof to him that people recognize the value of strong, local schools.
The district’s $15 million, 14-year general obligation bond won 68 percent of the vote; the seven-year, $6 million override earned 63 percent.
In addition, voters statewide approved by a much narrower margin – 2 percent – a funding measure in May, known as Proposition 123. That proposition increases educational funding by $3.5 billion over the course of the next decade. Money is allocated from both the state general fund and by increasing annual distributions from the state land trust to benefit education.
The formula for awarding those dollars is complex.
Prescott received an initial $900,000, a portion of which it used to cover 16 teaching positions – calculated at a rate of $45,000 each – that would otherwise have been cut to make for a $1.2 million budget shortfall. As it is, the current budget reflects a loss of 30 staff and teaching positions, 25 of them through attrition, Howard said.
In future years, Prescott will receive through Prop. 123 the same amount per student that every other district in the state will receive: $3,634.
In the course of the last seven years, Prescott has been forced to cut 230 staff positions, Howard said Wednesday. He believes the district now has been “right-sized,” and with pending sales of school properties and a slowing in the rate of enrollment decline, the district’s financial and academic picture appear far brighter.
One of the promises of the bond and override was that all staff would see a 5.1 percent pay increase this year, and the new budget reflects those increases.
Though Prescott still lags somewhat behind average in state teacher salaries, the increases are helping to make the district more competitive and will, therefore, enhance the likelihood that quality staff will come to stay.
What makes Howard and fellow school officials most proud is the continuing high academic performance of students despite budget constraints.
“We had an incredible year,” Howard said based on local and state test scores.
“We’re happy with our academic growth.”
Prescott High School Principal Stephanie Hillig said she believes the district, and her school in particular, are “definitely moving in a positive direction.”
The high school’s enrollment for the new school year is now at 1,512; enrollment at the end of the last school year was 1,476.
PUSD’s expected enrollment is over 3,800 with about 550 staff members. Student enrollment has declined about 300 students in the past two years.
In the coming year, the high school will get a new roof at a cost of about $1.5 million – state dollars will cover that expense – and student learning will be enhanced with expanded computer technology, particularly in English and math, Hillig said. Employee morale is also on the rise.
The fight for more education dollars is far from over, but Howard said he is heartened by what he hopes is a renewed commitment to see Arizona do better than 49th place in the nation.
“Our kids deserve quality, and we’re going to find a way to make that happen,” Howard pledged.