Voters offered overwhelming support for Payson Schools, with 61 percent approving a continuation of the 10 percent budget override.
A rejection would have forced the district to cut its budget by $1.2 million, phased in over three years. That could have devastated extracurricular programs, increased class sizes and hindered teacher recruitment.
The mail-in election inspired a 43 percent turnout — with 5,932 votes cast. That’s much higher than the turnout in most districts throughout the state — which often hovered around 30 percent, without statewide or national contests to draw voters.
Superintendent Stan Rentz said, “Yesterday the voters of Payson spoke loudly and clearly about their support for public education. Final results are still pending, but approximately 61 percent of voters said ‘yes’ to the children of the district. I am humbled by the confidence the voters have shown in our school system.”
He quoted Nelson Mandela who said — “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”
Voters throughout the state approved nearly two-thirds of the school bond issues and budget overrides on the ballot. However, some of the measures failed — including a disastrous failure in Peoria, which will force $34 million in cuts.
Payson offered much stronger support for its schools than communities in the White Mountains, which generally have a younger population and therefore higher levels of support for schools.
In St. Johns, the election was too close to call — with 50.78 percent in favor of continuing the 10 percent budget override and a turnout of barely 32 percent.
Blue Ridge voters extended the override there with a 55 percent margin and a 32 percent turnout.
In Payson, backers ran a relatively low-key campaign with the help of a special section in The Rim Review that was mailed to nearly everyone in town. Volunteers went door-to-door and speakers appeared before local clubs and groups. Little opposition to the measure emerged. However, backers worried that recall efforts involving the Payson Town Council could have sucked the political oxygen out of the room.
PUSD School Board president Barbara Underwood said, “Thank you PUSD voters for your vote of confidence by supporting this override. This will continue to allow our district to provide smaller class sizes, music, P.E., technology, and attract and retain quality staff. We appreciate everyone coming together for the betterment of our schools. Our children are our future.”
Rory Huff, a former school board member who headed up the volunteer effort to pass the override, said, “This was very strong support.”
The state imposes strict limits on how much extra money local voters can give schools, an effort to limit the once-huge, per-student spending differences between property-tax-rich districts and property-tax-poor districts, like Payson and many rural systems. The state redistributes much of the local property tax collected to even out the per-student state assistance. So property taxes from rich districts like Scottsdale go into equalization aid for districts like Payson. However, the system does allow local voters to boost a district’s property tax levy by up to 15 percent and keep the money to bolster the budget. Local voters can also boost property taxes to finance bonds to build new facilities.
Voters must approve the budget override for operations every five years. If voters had rejected the latest extension in Payson, it would have saved the owner of a $300,000 home about $87 annually in property taxes. The extension will simply maintain the existing tax rate. The district has about 2,300 students, including high school students from Pine, Tonto Basin and Young.
The district could have gambled on boosting the rate from 10 percent to 15 percent. The Mesa School District took that gamble and apparently narrowly won approval of the higher rate, preserving the $37 million existing levy and gaining another $18 million.
In Payson, voters have consistently supported schools by approving the override — as well as a bond issue some years ago, which will soon expire. The Payson School Board earmarked all of the extra $1.2 million for direct, classroom programs. The money supports teaching positions for extracurricular activities like sports, drama, music, advanced college classes and others. The money also supports teaching positions to reduce classroom sizes, and recruitment and training for teachers — in the face of a statewide teacher shortage.
In Maricopa County, voters approved roughly three-quarters of the school override and bond issues on the ballot. Some measures passed very narrowly, many enjoyed support comparable to the Payson schools.
Statewide education advocates took heart from the results.
The pro-education coalition Save Our Schools monitored the results to gauge pro-education sentiment in the state — with an eye toward seeking statewide voters support for a more than $1 billion boost in school funding in 2020.
Arizona made the deepest cuts in school funding in the nation during the recession and still has among the lowest teacher salaries and largest class sizes in the country. The state also ranks close to last on per-student spending.
Rentz concluded, “The passage of this override will support the district’s efforts to continue to keep class sizes within approved class size ranges.
“It will also ensure that we can provide advanced placement courses and maintain technology, music and physical education programs.
“As a school district, we take seriously our charge to provide the very best education possible for our children and to ensure that we are spending tax dollars in the most efficient way possible.
“Thank you again for your support of Payson public schools.”
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