Rush Of Donations Fulfills Schools' Hopes

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Taxpayer donations to local schools nearly doubled during the two weeks before the state's Dec. 31 contribution deadline, giving school officials enough money to build a ballfield, buy band instruments and put a down payment on new bleachers.

Pine-Strawberry Elementary School, which was trying to raise $40,000 for a new ballfield through Arizona's Credit for Kids program, collected $23,000 during those two weeks, bringing the school's total for the year to $53,347.

In Payson, last-minute donors contributed $56,700 to the Payson School District's athletic and fine arts programs, bringing the district's total for the year to $113,485 -- still nearly $300,000 short of its $400,000 goal.

Credit for Kids is a new law that allows residents to divert up to $200 of their state tax liabilities from the Department of Revenue to local school districts for extracurricular activities. Credit for Kids donations also can be claimed as charitable contributions on itemized federal tax returns. The deadline to make donations for the 1998 tax year was Dec. 31.

Pine business provides boost
P-S School administrators largely credit Bishop Realty, which mailed Credit for Kids donation packets to every Pine-Strawberry property owner in the state, for the 11th-hour rally. Packets were mailed to 3,500 homes across Arizona.

"The school did a mailing to all of the mailboxes in town, but this was to every property owner," said Julie Pugel, who co-owns Bishop Realty with her husband Ray. "We targeted a different market -- people who have second homes here.

"We thought the community could reap some good benefits from the mailing, but nobody anticipated the wonderful response we got. We got letters and phone calls from people in Mesa and Tucson saying they wanted to support our little school."

About $6,000 donated to the Pine-Strawberry School was earmarked for specific programs such as band, volunteer program coordinator Reba Scates said. That leaves school officials with more than $47,000 to build a regulation-size ballfield. The ballfield project is subject to board approval and a timeline for construction has not been set.

Crunching the numbers
While donations to Payson schools came up short of the goal, the prognosis for the extracurricular projects that Payson school officials had hoped to fund through Credit for Kids isn't as bleak as the numbers indicate.

Three of the four projects the Payson School Board planned to fund through Credit for Kids -- bleachers for Longhorn field, seating for the high school's new mini-theater and instruments for the high school marching band -- will receive full or partial funding.

The fourth project, an all-weather track for district athletes will not be funded.

"All the money for fine arts will automatically go to musical instruments because the district is going to pick up the cost of completing the black box theater," said Bobette Sylvester, PUSD business manager. "The money dedicated to athletics will go to the (bleachers for Longhorn field)."

Donors earmarked $39,445 for fine arts, $24,436 for athletics and left $49,604 undesignated. The school board will decide how to spend the undesignated money, but Sylvester said she suspects the board will spend a portion of it for new home-team bleachers at Longhorn field.

"We're going to be short on the funding we need for the bleachers," she said. "We're considering asking for private donations to complete the project."

The district has received an $80,000 bid for concrete bleachers and a $180,000 bid for aluminum bleachers, she said. The district has asked for a second quote for aluminum bleachers.

Future funding uncertain
Neither district is currently accepting Credit for Kids donations for the 1999-2000 school year because officials are worried the state Legislature will rescind the program this session. School administrators expect to decide whether to accept donations for 1999 by the time the legislative session ends in April.

"We want to ensure that there are no changes to the law before we accept further donations," Sylvester said.

A fickle legislature, however, is not the only threat to the Credit for Kids program.

A lawsuit pending in the state Supreme Court is challenging the constitutionality of a related tax credit that went into effect in 1998 to help fund charter school tuitions.

That law, which was passed in conjunction with Credit for Kids, allows people to donate up to $500 of their state tax liability to private and charter schools to offset student tuition.

Penny Kotterman and 10 others have challenged that means of tuition funding in a suit that names the Department of Revenue and its director, Mark Killian, as defendants.

The decision in that case may also affect Credit for Kids funding, said Vince Perez, director executive officer of the Arizona Department of Revenue.

"They're similar credits and that's why there's always that possibility," he said. "The decision could affect both credits for 1998, but at this point in time, the credits are valid.

"Until we find out what will be stated in the decision, very little can be done. We'd be guessing almost. That's what we're waiting for, and we'll go from there."

Sylvester said, however, that she doesn't believe 1998 Credit for Kids funding will be affected by the Supreme Court decision.

"We've talked to various groups out there and the consensus is that any decision on pending court cases won't be retroactive," she said.

Retracting the Credit for Kids tax credit for 1998 at this late hour would be unconscionable, Scates said.

"I'll tell you one thing," she said, "they'll have a taxpayer revolt if they try to rescind funding for 1998. It wouldn't just be the schools that would be inconvenienced, it would be the taxpayers as well."

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