School Advocates Start Campaign To Pass Override

Passage of the Payson school override would give the school $1.2M

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School advocates are mounting a huge grassroots effort to pass March’s school budget override election. The same measure failed in November 2008 after a quiet campaign, leaving in its wake a set of worried and confused school and community leaders.

Even if the override passes, the district must still contend with a deficit estimated at around $1 million, depending on state funding. Without the override, the deficit is estimated at $1.8 million.

The measure would add $11.21 annually in taxes on a $100,000 home, and again give the school $1.2 million, or 10 percent, over its budgeted maintenance and operations budget.

In 2008, a committee of three waged a campaign with roughly $700 that consisted mostly of an e-mail tree and speeches to local community groups.

Now, anywhere from 30 to 150 people attend weekly committee meetings at the Payson Senior Center. They plan a radio and newspaper advertising blitz, along with a door-to-door grassroots campaign on Feb. 6. Fund-raising for the campaign has already raised roughly $7,000.

Tip a Teacher

Another Feb. 6 event at Macky’s Grill, called “Tip a Teacher,” will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tips that would ordinarily go to servers will instead go to schools. The teachers can decide if they want the money to fund the override campaign or a program for their school. The override committee will also be on hand to answer questions.

Ongoing Wednesday meetings start at 4 p.m. at the Senior Center.

Committee leaders say the override is integral to maintaining quality education. Without it, they say, the district could lose 20 to 30 positions, resulting in larger class sizes and fewer educational options.

“They absorbed an awful lot of cuts last year,” said committee leader Craig Swartwood. “They’ve done a very good job of making do with less for quite a few years.”

During the past two years, the state has cut district funding by $1.33 million, and declining enrollment has cost another $676,000. School officials have already cut 11 positions while reducing physical education, music instruction and library time. Short-term federal funding is supporting 19 positions, but five of them will phase out in one year.

The district has not said what programs will be cut should the override fail again. The state Legislature’s terminal indecision about its budget has complicated forecasts. School officials can’t highlight threatened programs because they have so little concrete information about next year’s finances.

Pay to play possible

“Even if the override passes, it will be difficult but manageable,” said committee leader Joanne Conlin. “If it fails, the schools will just look different.” That means larger class sizes, possibly “pay to play” extracurricular activities that make it financially impossible for some students and fewer programs.

Superintendent Casey O’Brien has said all along that the 2010-11 school year poses the greatest threat. Stimulus money will have largely run out and the state continues to have a massive deficit. With education comprising roughly 35 percent of Arizona’s budget, schools will almost certainly see more cutbacks.

The override’s failure in 2008 means that unless voters reauthorize it, the money will decrease by one-third every year until completely disappearing. This year, the original $1.2 million scaled back $419,000. Next year, it will reduce another $400,000.

All told, the district will lose $800,000 in those two years, and in March, voters will decide whether to give that $800,000 back to schools.

If they don’t, the override would cut back another $400,000 in 2011-12 before disappearing all together. Should voters approve the $800,000, the total override would again amount to $1.2 million, which represents 10 percent of the district’s maintenance and operations budget.

Swartwood says that works out to roughly 3 cents each day on a $100,000 house. “You can say I helped save 20 to 30 jobs,” he said. “To me, it’s doing my part to make Payson a little bit more stable.”

Committee leaders say cuts in schools would reverberate throughout the community because good schools are important for attracting people and businesses to Payson.

“Good doctors are going to be looking at the schools,” Conlin said. “They want a school where their children are going to get a quality education.”

She added, “there will definitely be a domino effect.”

Swartwood, who worked on the first override campaign in 2004, but skipped the one in 2008, said he and other leaders discussed this campaign for a year.

In July, the school board decided against asking voters in November, based mostly on the override committee’s feeling that the economy made it an inappropriate time to ask people for money.

Finally, Swartwood said, the committee leaders concluded, “We can either let things crumble around us, or we can step up and ask the community to spend a little bit of money.”

Some critics have wondered why the school is paying for new signs and fences while asking voters for more money to run the school.

Money is for day-to-day expenses

However, override advocates say that bond money can’t be used for daily expenses, just capital improvements. “Override money is for day-to-day operations,” said Conlin. “You cannot mix the money. It would be nice if you could, but you can’t.”

Credit For Kids money, she added, is solely for extracurricular activities, and can’t be used in the classroom. Credit For Kids is a program that allows residents to donate to schools, in turn deducting the donation dollar-for-dollar from their taxes, up to a certain amount.

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