The Payson Unified School District needs to spend $6.5 million over the next five years to keep its buildings from falling apart, a consultant told a shaken school board on Monday.
Moreover, the district will have to come up with another $7.5 million in the five years after that just to keep roofs from leaking, air conditioners running and carpets from coming apart. The district also needs to change all its door locks and pay for added security measures in a frightening era of school shooters, said Allison Suriano, with a Valley consulting firm that has just concluded a review of the district’s needs.
The maintenance bill for the deteriorating buildings comes to between $1 million and $2 million annually for the next 10 years, according to the survey of every square foot of the four existing campuses of the 2,400-student district.
Currently, the district spends $150,000 to $300,000 annually on maintenance and capital projects — with the cost of a single new school bus running to $170,000, said Superintendent Greg Wyman.
The district’s plight stems from the Arizona Legislature’s refusal to set aside money to make capital improvements and fixes to districts statewide, said Wyman.
“It’s not for lack of trying to maintain our buildings,” said the superintendent. “It’s the lack of dollars from the state. The building renewal plan has been fully funded in only one of the past 15 years. You see that across the state, facilities are failing because the state failed us.”
A coalition of school districts sued the state some 20 years ago, prompting a judge to declare the state’s education funding system unconstitutional due to the reliance on local property taxes. The old system gave property tax rich districts like Scottsdale far more to spend per student than property tax poor districts like Payson.
The Legislature shifted much of the responsibility for school funding to the state, with a system to collect property taxes statewide but then equalize the per-student funding. That new system established the Arizona School Facilities Board, responsible for funding school improvements and repairs.
However, the Legislature then failed to give the School Facilities Board enough money to keep up with the needs of districts throughout the state. The money the SFB did have either went to emergency repairs — like collapsed or leaking roofs — or districts growing so fast they had no where to put students.
Wyman said the capital plan presented by the consultants this week focused on the most urgent maintenance problems involving roofs, air conditioning, heating, transportation and safety. The plan doesn’t include money for things like more classroom space in the elementary schools, where the decision to close Frontier resulted in a jump in class sizes to 30 or more as well as splitting the elementary grades between two campuses. This has increased transportation costs in an already spread-out district.
“You have to be Maricopa right now, with 40 kids in a classroom and desperate, before the SFB will give you money to add classroom space,” said Suriano.
Moreover, the state’s formula includes virtually every square foot of space on campus when determining whether a district needs to add classrooms, said Wyman. That means the square footage of the auditorium, cafeteria, gyms and other buildings all count as possible “classroom” space.
“From the state’s point of view when it comes to capacity, the high school can hold 1,100 kids. It just inflates it beyond reasonable expectations — so they’re going to come back and say ‘you’re not at capacity’ if the district seeks money for classroom facilities,” said Wyman.
The consultants will present the full plan in February, which will then form the basis of a facilities plan for the district. The plan will prioritize the capital money the district can scrape together, in an effort to head off expensive breakdowns — like a damaging roof leak.
The priority list will also put the district in a good position should the state provide more money for capital improvements as Gov. Doug Ducey has promised. The governor added some money for capital improvements in the current fiscal year. This year, the state has an estimated $1 billion surplus, and Gov. Ducey has vowed to again provide money to meet the capital funding formulas that grew out of the long-ago court case.
“Gov. Ducey has a plan over the next five years to fund the building renewal fund, but that money in no way shape or form backfills all the money that wasn’t given to us over the last 15 years,” said Wyman.
Wyman said schools have brought another lawsuit trying to get the state to adequately fund school improvements, but that will likely take years to resolve.
“Let’s say a miracle happens and the courts rule on it and we’re in a position to say ‘OK, what are our priorities and how do we move on it?’”
In the meantime, the facilities plan can also perhaps form the basis of another attempt by the district to seek voter approval of new school bonds. The district will in the next five years or so finish paying off a bond issue used to make improvements at Julia Randall Elementary, Rim Country Middle School, the district offices and elsewhere. However, the state sharply limits school bonding capacity as part of the effort to prevent the development of rich and poor districts when it comes to facilities.
Even if none of that happens, the plan will identify the most critical problems to address with the limited capital budget. That might include safety improvements, like doors that lock from the inside so teachers can keep students safe if there’s an “active shooter” on campus. Those locks would cost about $50,000 per school site.
“If we need $6 million to fix everything but have only got $150,000 to spend, you’re ignoring most of that $6 million. So we’ll have conversations about what the priority is,” concluded Wyman.