A northwest Valley school district’s two funding requests have stirred debate.
Voters in the Dysart Unified School District, which encompasses El Mirage and Surprise, will decide on a $152.5 million bond request that would increase property taxes to build two elementary schools, buy land for a new high school, renovate existing schools and replace buses.
Voters also are asked to renew a 15% maintenance and operation override that would bring in an estimated $22.4 million annually to help maintain operations at the same level as recent years.
Ballots were mailed out to all voters in the district for the Nov. 5 all-mail election.
The school board says both requests are crucial to maintain class size and quality education as the district grows. But some residents question whether the district needs more taxpayer money.
Political action committees on both sides have mounted yard signs, made websites and are reaching out to residents on social media to try to sway their votes.
Here’s what Dysart residents should know.
What would the bonds pay for?
Approval of the bond request would allow the district to sell $152.5 million in bonds. This is how the money would be spent:
- $61.1 million: Construction of two new elementary schools, land for a future high school, safety projects, school grounds upgrades, furniture, technology and equipment.
- $76.4 million: Maintenance, renovation and improvement of existing schools.
- $12.1 million: Buses and campus support vehicles.
The two new elementary schools would be built in the northwestern and southwestern areas of the district, which is experiencing growth, said Ken Hicks, Dysart’s assistant superintendent for business services.
The district’s K-12 enrollment, currently at 23,697 students, is expected to grow by 1,808 students in five years, according to the district. Much of that growth is projected in the west.
In the next five years, for example, enrollment at Sonoran Heights and Mountain View elementary schools in the southwest is projected to grow from a combined 1,745 students to 3,132 students, when each school’s capacity is 1,100. In northern Surprise, enrollment at Asante Preparatory Academy is projected to grow from 350 to 1,238 students, with the same capacity.
The land for the new high school will most likely be in the northern area of the district, Hicks said.
The renovation funding would benefit all schools, starting with the district’s oldest schools, he said.
What does the override pay for?
Voters approved the budget override in 2000, but it must go back to voters on regular intervals.
An override uses local taxpayer dollars to boost operating funds beyond state funding levels.
The school board says a “yes” vote will:
- Retain highly qualified teachers.
- Keep class sizes manageable.
- Fund classroom resources for reading and math.
- Fund music, arts, athletics and free full-day kindergarten.
The district would need to make cuts if the override fails, Superintendent Quinn Kellis said.
A district request to renew the override did fail, in 2014. The next year, the override began to be phased out, which led to cuts.
The district eliminated 100 teaching positions and class sizes increased, reduced full-day kindergarten to half-day, and reduced arts and athletics programs, according to the district.
Voters reinstated the override in 2015, saving the district from future cuts. It has been in place since.
Will my taxes go up?
A “yes” vote on Question 1, the bond measure, would increase property taxes. A “yes” vote on Question 2, the override, would not.
If the bond request is approved, the district would borrow $152.5 million for the capital projects and pay it back over an estimated 22 years. The interest is estimated at $106.4 million, taking the total repayment to an estimated $258.9 million.
A “yes” vote on the bond question would increase property taxes by about $10.88 per month for the owner of a home assessed at $153,580, the average assessed home value in the district. This amount would change over time because the school district would sell the bonds in increments.
For the override, a “yes” vote would not change property taxes as it renews a tax that already is in place.
A “no” vote on the override would decrease property taxes. For that same average home in the district, the monthly bill would decrease by an average of about $6.38 per month.
Why doesn’t the district get the money from the state?
School construction money trickles down from the state to local districts, but it’s not nearly enough to pay for everything districts say they need. The state has limited funding, and that funding has been cut dramatically in recent years.
Over the past 10 years, Dysart has received approximately $80 million less than what the state owed the district because of the reductions, according to the district.
Dysart expects to receive $1 million from the state for school renovations this year. Hicks said future allowances won’t be enough to cover future needs.
The district was not going to get state money to build two new elementary schools, Kellis said, and the district doesn’t have the savings to pay cash.
The state allows districts to ask voters for their approval to sell bonds for this reason.
Dysart is just one of 26 school districts in Maricopa County asking for bond or override approvals this election season.
“At some point, all school districts across the state will have to address this,” Hicks said.
While some opposition has claimed that the school district just needs to manage its money better or is mismanaging funds, Hicks said the district has won “award after award” for its transparency and accountability, and goes through intensive auditing to ensure its money is spent correctly.
Certain school repairs also aren’t funded by the state such as safety, technology and front office space costs.
The bond and override are in the “best interests of our underserved and more vulnerable students,” according to Annie Ansell, executive director of Dysart Community Center.
The two El Mirage residents who created a PAC to oppose the bond and override, called Liberty Choice, disagree.
Marc Demers and Michael Hutchinson say both are a bad deal for taxpayers, in part because of the large amount of interest on the bonds.
Who is paying for the advertisements?
Liberty Choice has received one $20 donation from an El Mirage resident. Other than that, Hutchinson said he has contributed about $1,500 to the campaign.
They have used that on graphic design, signs and digital ads.
They are being outspent by the thousands by the PAC created by El Mirage resident Chance Mikos to support the initiative, Vote Yes for Dysart.
That group raised $71,851 by the end of September.
That PAC’s money isn’t coming from within the district, though — the campaign is largely bankrolled by construction companies that could end up working on the projects.
At least 93% of the funds, or $66,000, has come from builders, contractors, architects and others involved in the building and renovating of school properties, according to an analysis by The Arizona Republic.
The PAC had spent about $23,500 of that as of the end of September, on advocacy material such as yard signs, newspaper ads, consulting services and other marketing materials.
This type of fundraising isn’t unusual.
Companies that build and renovate schools are often the largest donors in school bond elections in Maricopa County. A few other school district measures on the fall ballot have seen just as much PAC funding from construction companies.
Why do construction companies give to pro-bond campaigns?
Builders that have funded school district bond elections throughout the county have received a disproportionate amount of construction work from K-12 schools in the past, according to a 2017 investigation by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
The four largest donors to the Dysart PAC — CHASSE Building Team, CORE Construction Inc and McCarthy Holdings Inc, and Orcutt Winslow Partnership — were all named in that report as being among the companies to win the most school construction projects.
Each of the companies contributed $7,500. Corporations can give unlimited funds to PACs in the state.
Kellis says the PAC is not supported by the district, and the district is not involved in its activities. He said there are many different groups that support education.
“There are so many who give up their time and their resources, and we appreciate everybody,” he said.
Contracts in the district are awarded through a strict and transparent procurement process that would not allow the district to consider PAC funding, Hicks said.
Representatives from the construction companies say they give money to school district bond elections to support local education.
“Currently, these elections are one of the ways that additional needed resources are made available to school districts to help ensure young people throughout the community receive a better, well-rounded education,” Justin Kelton, president of McCarthy’s southwest region, said in a statement.
The state’s public school districts are underfunded and need the bond and overrides to pass, Vispi Karanjia, managing partner at Orcutt Winslow, said in a statement.
“Orcutt Winslow supports school districts across the state in these elections through their respective PACs, irrespective of whether we have done work or not with the district,” Karanjia said.
Part of the business plan at CHASSE is to give back to the community, and the PAC contributions are one way, said Joe Holcombe, executive vice president at CHASSE.
Holcombe said CHASSE gives to district elections across the state, and he has never seen a correlation between the money it gives and the projects it receives.
“There are districts we support that we have never done a project in,” he said.
Demers and Hutchinson aren’t buying it.
“We don’t think it is mere coincidence that the same construction companies fund the vote-yes campaigns, sponsor district events and then magically get chosen to receive building contracts,” they wrote in a statement.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield.
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