So the Payson school board last week celebrated a progress report on $1.5 million worth of school upgrades — approved before COVID-19 cast its long shadow over state finances.
The projects came after Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature at the beginning of this fiscal year finally made a big down payment on school capital improvement money withheld since the onset of the recession a decade ago.
Payson hired an outside consultant to study the district’s capital needs. The price tag for deferred capital improvements came to $12 million — including key security improvements needed to make the campus more secure in case of an outside threat — including an “active shooter.”
The state doubled funding for school capital improvements this year, but once COVID-19 hit, lawmakers adopted a “skinny” $12 billion budget, with much less money for school improvements. Lawmakers were reacting to projections by the State Legislative Budget Committee that the once-hoped-for $1 billion surplus this year could turn into a $1 billion deficit, thanks to a dramatic drop in sales tax revenue during the shutdown.
Fortunately, Payson got its study on the high-priority improvement list last year and scored big when the Arizona School Facilities Board approved funding for the current fiscal year.
In addition to the state-funded projects, the district took advantage of the shutdown to use other grant funds to completely remodel the cooking facilities used by the culinary arts program and make major upgrades to the facilities for the auto-shop program.
The list of school facilities board projects underway in Payson include:
- $330,000 for roofing projects at Payson Elementary School.
- $38,000 for new air conditioners and heat pumps at Payson High School.
- More than $100,000 for new doors and door hardware at the high school.
- $71,000 to improve drainage on the high school grounds.
- $274,000 to roof the C-Building on the high school campus.
- $410,000 to roof the gymnasium dome.
- $358,000 for additional roofing projects at Payson Elementary School.
The upgrades include a host of other, smaller projects, including wheelchair ramps on the Julia Randall Elementary School playground, removal of potentially dangerous asbestos and lead in the restrooms of the construction trades building and other projects, Facilities Manager Brent Bailey reported to the school board last week. The district has even finally hired a landscaping firm to cope with the riot of weeds on many campuses, including treatment with pre-emergent. The absence of students on campus for the past two months has made many of those projects easier.
Bailey noted, “We got $1.4 million — more than in the whole six years I’ve been here. These projects don’t happen as fast as any of us want to happen, but we can’t afford this kind of stuff on our own.”
The district’s budget for upkeep and repairs on its five campuses comes to about $500,000 annually, which means the district slips behind its capital needs most years.
The consultant had recommended a capital budget of more like $2 million annually to catch up on the backlog of needed repairs and upgrades.
The pandemic interrupted an effort to at least start to catch up on years of deferred maintenance in all of the state’s school districts, which total more than $1 billion since lawmakers made the deepest cuts in school funding in the nation in the face of the 2008 recession.
The courts had ordered the state to take responsibility for schools’ capital needs in order to correct an unconstitutional disparity between the facilities of property-tax-rich schools in wealthy neighborhoods and poor schools — including most rural schools. About half of Payson’s students qualify for free-and-reduced school lunches based on family income. The district has no major source of property tax revenue, like a power plant, a manufacturing plant or a shopping mall. The state set up the school facilities board to decide which district projects to fund, but never provided the money to meet the formulas suggested by the courts.
This year a state audit revealed a host of problems in the funding of school capital improvements. The state had doubled to $76 million the amount earmarked for school improvements in fiscal 2018-19.
However, lawmakers didn’t increase funding for the school facilities board staff tasked with overseeing and approving the projects, resulting in long delays in funding projects, according to the auditor general’s special audit report.
Problems included project accounts open for more than a year, leaking roofs and other critical problems that went unrepaired for more than four years, the discovery of $49 million in unspent funds and 628 open grant projects. Some of the long-delayed projects posed health and safety issues for students. The auditor general also raised questions about undisclosed conflicts of interest on the part of several of the board members overseeing the school facilities board.
Fortunately, the Payson school board invested the money up front in a study of the district’s capital needs, under the direction of then Superintendent Greg Wyman. The district had all the information needed to rush an application into the school facilities board when the state budget provided the first near-normal funding for at least one year’s capital needs.
Now, the state budget picture has once more turned gloomy, with 15% unemployment, a drop in retail sales of 15% to 30% in the past two months and continued uncertainty about the costs schools will face when they reopen in August — including whether many students will simply stay home.
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