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Mar 6, 2017

Arizona School Construction Funding Issues Remain Unresolved

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Voters in Arizona may expect to be confronted with an increasing number of school bond proposals in the coming years.

“We are, thankfully, not right now in need of new school buildings here,” says Jack Eton, the executive director of business services with the Dysert Unified School District in a northwest suburb of Phoenix.

“But if we were, under the current scenario, the only option we really have is to go to our local communities and ask them to approve a bond issue,” Eton continues.

That’s because State of Arizona funding for school facility needs—first depleted during the Great Recession—hasn’t come back since.

“The current reductions to capital funding for school districts is $352 million,” reports Chuck Essigs, the director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

“And there has not, in response, been one budget proposal or piece of legislation that has gone through the legislature that would propose or try to reduce that amount,” Essig adds.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In 1998 the Arizona Legislature established the state’s School Facilities Board with the mission of handling up to $1.3 billion in appropriated funds to build, renovate, and upgrade schools across the state.

While that process, according to officials, worked well in its initial years, the funding disappeared during the national economic downturn.

“We used to get state funding for our new facilities,” says Eton. “We were growing very rapidly and opened two or three school in a single year because of that—and all of those buildings were funded by the School Facilities Board.”

But today, in order for Arizona’s school districts to keep up with their facility needs, there is only one real source of funding: the school bond, put on a ballot to be approved, or not, by district voters.

In 2015 exactly fifty school districts across the state asked local voters to approve such bonds.

Last year forty-eight districts turned to the voters for help.

In both elections, the result were uneven, with voters in 2015 in the Buckeye Elementary School District just west of Phoenix approving a $27 million bond to build a new school and renovating existing schools.

But in that same election, voters in the Sahuarita Unified School District south of Tucson defeated a $40 million bond for the construction of a new elementary school, as well as the renovation of several existing buildings.

Last November voters in the Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix gave the green light to an $85 million bond for the construction and renovation of school buildings.

But on the same day Peoria Unified School District voters in Glendale defeated a $198 million bond to fund the construction of a new elementary school and high school, among other projects.

Such defeats, after weeks and months of planning, can leave school districts reeling.

“I honestly don’t know what is going to happen next,” says Erin Dunsey, a spokesperson with the Peoria Unified School District.

“It is something that is going to be discussed with the governing board here deciding at a future date whether to call for another bond election,” she adds.

To make matters more challenging, Arizona school districts also have to surmount the opposition of different voter groups that are skeptical about the worth of school bonds.

“Any district with a large retirement community is going to have a hard time of it,” says Essig.

Arizona today is the 10th largest state in the country with its over 65 years of age population.

Essig notes that because retirees generally don’t have school-age children in their homes, they have no real stake in their local districts, tending to oppose all school bond issues.

Because the rejection rate in such communities has been as high as 65 percent or more, says Essig, “some of the districts have simply stopped trying because they know whatever bond they propose doesn’t stand a chance of passing.”

Arizona’s schools are also challenged by the assessed value of private property within their districts—even after a successful bond election.

“We can only have a certain percentage of our district assessed value that is taxable as an upper limit of the bonding amount,” says Eton.

“When the downturn came, assessed values dropped dramatically, so we were not able to issue around $80 million in bonds that were authorized,” he adds.

Although Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in his most recent budget called for $17 million to go the School Facilities Board for building maintenance issues, critics say that’s just a drop in the bucket.

Partly in response, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest has announced that it may file a lawsuit on behalf of several districts, charging that Arizona has short-changed those districts hundreds of millions of dollars in building maintenance needs.  

 

By Garry Boulard

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