More than 30 school districts in Maricopa County will turn to voters this year in school override elections which, if approved, allow schools to override their budget. Some district officials say they need money from local taxpayers to make up for cuts in state funding. Scottsdale Superintendent David Peterson and John Fischer, executive director of Stand for Children in Arizona, will discuss overrides and the reasons schools seek them.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. More than 30 school districts in Maricopa County will turn to voters this year in hopes of approving bonds and budget overrides. Some district officials say the money from local taxpayers is needed to make up for years of cuts in state funding. Joining me to talk about school bond and override elections are Scottsdale superintendent David Peterson, and John Fischer, Executive Director of Stand for Children in Arizona, a group committed to improving education. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Let's define terms because I know a lot of people, their eyes are already glazing over. What is a school bond? What is an override election?
David Peterson: That's a great question. We get that a lot, because people do confuse those things. We look at bonds, bonds start with a "B" so we say buildings and buses. You can buy buildings and buses with bonds. Overrides, that's "O," that's operations, people and programs.
Ted Simons: Basically this is local funding for local schools.
David Peterson: It's the local control of our constituents that says we want to fund these things so we have quality educational programs for our children.
Ted Simons: Are there different overrides for different things?
John Fischer: Absolutely. So each individual district that goes out for a bond or override has to define what specifically those additional dollars are going to support. So in one district it could be -- We're working with the Roosevelt School District, the override is supporting extended school time, and in Alhambra they're working on a capital override to increase the amount of technology in their school.
Ted Simons: Can there be more than one thing that the money would go to or do you have to emphasize one in particular?
John Fischer: There can be multiple.
Ted Simons: If there are multiple, does it make it more difficult to get through? What are the dynamics?
John Fischer: It really does make it a little more difficult to explain to the community what the funds are going to support. And that's critical in making sure that it's passed, because the community is ultimately the decider in whether or not the bond passes or the override passes.
Ted Simons: You can do an override for books, utilities, daily operations. Again, are they structured in a way where you got to vote for this or you got to vote for that? What are voters faced with?
David Peterson: As John said, overrides are a couple things. Capital overrides are good for seven years, and you get that same amount of funding every year for seven years depending on what the voters approve. An M&O override, for operational expenses, is a percentage. We can go up to 15 precent of our budget additional funding. In Scottsdale we use that additional dollars to pay for all-day kindergarten, because the state of Arizona will only pay for half the day of a student to go to kindergarten. We use it to lower class sizes, to have electives in our elementary schools for art, P.E., band, music, that the state doesn't fund it.
Ted Simons: It seems to me that overrides were originally designed to be additions to state funds. Has that particular equation changed?
David Peterson: That equation has changed big-time. Since 2008, we have received a reduction of over 20 percent in our funding from the state of Arizona. And because of that, we've had to shift some of these dollars, again, 90 percent of our budget is people. It's teachers. And so as you start losing dollars, you don't want to lose teachers, you shift money around and keep them.
Ted Simons: Is that something, do you think is clear to voters, is that message out there that what you're doing now isn't so much for the extras -- You hear override you think above and beyond. It sounds like it's filling in gaps.
John Fischer: I think it depends on the individual district and how strong the connection is between the district and the community. Parents really need to engage in the conversation with the school district, with the school board members, research what the funds are going to support, go to the district website to find out more about what specifically their override or bond is going to implement.
Ted Simons: We have 30 plus county votes this go around. How come so many?
John Fischer: I think part of it is the fact due to the loss in revenue to the general fund, there were cuts. So districts are looking for additional ways to maintain that basic level of service that really the communities have come to expect.
Ted Simons: And you mentioned the time frame on some of these instruments, if you will, they're come due, a lot of them, aren't they?
David Peterson: That's why there's a significant number. Every five years we have to renew that M&O override. And in a lot of districts, we are at year five. So this is a renewal. It's not a new increase, it's not a new tax, it's a renewal of what we've already had in place, so a lot of districts are doing that. To put it in perspective, one out of every six students in Maricopa County this year is being touched by an override or bond election.
Ted Simons: And yet we had a third of these elections last year fail. Why?
David Peterson: I believe anecdotally, they failed because there was a lot of confusion. We had prop 204 on the ballot, and people were confused. And I don't blame them when they were confused. They decided, let's vote no because we don't understand things. So our job this year was to truly educate and help people understand the value and the support they can bring to our district.
Ted Simons: How much did that extension of the one cent sales tax, how much did that impact, do you think, the votes last year?
John Fischer: It's really impossible to speculate. Certainly it added to the conversation that was happening around funding for schools, and I think that was a great point around, was there clarity on what the funds were going to, whether it was prop 204 and the individual overrides that were being decided upon.
Ted Simons: And again, critics of the override election and bonds to a certain degree as well, they say this is a way that just keeps property taxes high and increasing from where they even are now. Valid argument?
John Fischer: It honestly depends. I think that's why it's such a local decision, and it's important for local constituents to engage in that conversation. Money for the sake of money doesn't support education, but making sure those dollars are going to specific resources or specific programs that are going to benefit students and increase academic achievement, it's the responsibility of the local voter, the local homeowner to make that decision.
Ted Simons: Talk about the relationship between property taxes and what school districts are asking voters to do.
David Peterson: Sure. Our schools in Arizona are predominantly funded with property taxes. And in Scottsdale's case, this override is an increase because we were not successful last year, so we're having to make up that money that we lost, which was about $4 million. So for us when you put it in perspective for the homeowner, it comes to six cents a day. Six cents a day is what we're asking additional dollars to be paid in order to have the programs we have.
Ted Simons: Was that message made clear last go-around?
David Peterson: I believe so, but there was just confusion with the other initiatives on the ballot.
Ted Simons: I'm trying to figure out, again, because you see the signs, yes on this, yes on this, I support education, yes, yes, yes. Who is voting no on these things? Are these homeowners that are saying enough is enough? Do they want to see changes in terms of where the money is going and how the budgets are structured? What's going on out there?
David Peterson: I think transparency is very important. We work very hard to make sure we're transparent with our finances, that we share that information; we have a tremendous amount of information on our website. Some voters are probably skeptical and we sit down and talk with them and they say, gosh, I know now that that money is truly going to my local school district. I will support it.
Ted Simons: Does this in some way take heat off of the legislature, off of the governor, off of whomever is responsible for the general fund and getting -- Obviously education money, there was some in the last budget, but before that, pretty big-time cuts for quite a while here. Are local folks now just taking up the load?
John Fischer: In the short term, they are. But I don't think it takes pressure off the legislature because the expectations are being raised on what schools are expected to accomplish. We have Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards, this year for the first time are being implemented K-12. What we're expecting students to be able to accomplish is that much higher. So honestly schools are being expected to do much more to make sure students are ready for college and career.
Ted Simons: Talk about those changes in standards. We won't call it Common Core because I guess we're not allowed to anymore, but talk about those changes and what schools are facing.
David Peterson: Schools are facing a major shift. This is probably one of the largest educational reforms that has ever come across the country. The good thing about it, our students are performing at higher levels. Our kindergartener students used to --we would be happy if they knew their numbers, colors, and shapes. They're now writing four and five-sentence paragraphs. The standards have really driven down, so what we used to do in first and second grade we're now having our kindergarteners do. Our students are performing at incredible levels.
Ted Simons: Last question for both of you, what do school districts need to do in order to make it more clear as to what's involved in this vote, and again, what do critics need to do to make their position more clear?
David Peterson: I think again we need to communicate. We need to make sure we have our message sent to folks, and that we give the opportunity for people to come in and ask questions.
Ted Simons: What do you think?
John Fischer: You've got to get out there. It's not something that can be done via a website. It's going to be done based on relationships, knocking on doors and having individual conversations with voters.
Ted Simons: All right. It's good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.
David Peterson: Thank you.
David Peterson:Superintendent, Scottsdale;John Fischer:Executive Director, Stand for Children;