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Dysart school distruct unveils plans for $86M bond issue
(Independent News Media, Inc., USA, photo by Jeff Grant)

Proposal would fund sweeping 5-year plan for capital upgrades

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Voters in the 25,000-student Dysart Unified School District will be asked this fall to approve an $86.8 million bond issue to fund a sweeping 5-year capital improvement program that addresses a series of needs, many that have been put on hold over the recession of 2007-08 and reductions in state funding.

The bond proposal would raise the district’s tax rate by 49 cents over the next 20 years.

In 2013-14, the district’s tax rate under its annual budget is scheduled to rise by 22 cents from $7.39 to $7.61.

The extensive list of projects includes technology upgrades and expansion, infrastructure improvements, security and safety upgrades, capital equipment, new buses and other vehicles, curriculum enhancement and improved athletics facilities.

“That is an investment in the future of the community as well as an investment in terms of students,” district Superintendent Gail Pletnick, Ed.D., told the DUSD Governing Board during its June 19 business meeting before the panel approved placing the item on this November’s general election ballot.

The Governing Board, during its June 5 business meeting, discussed three alternatives for funding the capital program, but ultimately decided on the bond election as the most attractive to the district and the public. The board also considered a capital-outlay override, and a district-sponsored charter school option, before settling on the bond proposal and the charter school conversions, according to board President Traci Sawyer-Sinkbeil.

“This was better received by the board because an override would increase the tax rate by $1.03 for seven years. The bond election would give us the dollars we need with minimal impact on the community.”

Growing strategy

The charter school plan, separate from the bond issue, requires no voter approval. Charter schools are institutions attended by choice and generally are expected to produce certain results, set forth in their charter.

It involves converting four elementary schools – Canyon Ridge, Countryside, Luke and West Point – to district-sponsored charter schools, qualifying the district to receive additional capital funds. Arizona’s school funding formula pays districts additional money for each new charter school student. The schools are run by the district and operation is virtually the same as other noncharter district schools, noted Dr. Pletnick.

The shift is becoming a growing trend across the state, with schools in Casa Grande, Paradise Valley, Cave Creek and Tucson all either enacting or considering converting some schools to district-sponsored charter schools.

The strategy allows districts to gain an additional $1,300 per student, stated Ms. Sawyer-Sinkbeil in an e-mail.

“We estimate receiving $650,000 for the first year of chartering the four schools and $3.9 million for the second year,” she wrote.

The last bond issue to go before voters came in 2006, when voters approved spending $190 million. However, officials said the recession and resulting plunge in assessed property values throughout the district forced DUSD officials to forego selling the final $82 million of that figure.

“We sold about $108 million in bonds, (but) we didn’t have the ability to sell any more,” said district spokesman Jim Dean.

The recession prompted Arizona lawmakers to reduce education spending. Although the legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer recently enacted a budget that increases funding, districts across Arizona have seen their aid steadily drop since 2009.

Property values climbing

In the Dysart district, that reduction has corresponded with a steady decline in capital spending, from $11 million in 2009 to $2 million this academic year, pointed out interim Executive Director of Business Services Jeff Gadd.

“We might be called a ‘high-growth district.’ That (funding) lasted two or three years, then the revenue stream wasn’t there anymore.”

“If you want to do a very good job (educating students), I think you have to realize some local funding is going to be required,” Mr. Gadd told the board.

Signs of a financial rebound are sustained enough to encourage district officials to push forward with plans for the capital improvements, but district leaders also say some upgrades simply cannot wait any longer.

Mr. Gadd told the board during the last two years, district average property values have begun recovering. The figure dropped 17.73 percent in 2011-12 but declined only 8.77 percent for 2012-13. It is expected to drop 3.24 percent by 2014, he said.

“You have a tax-rate projection that we feel very confident in that stabilizes the tax rate fairly soon,” he told the board.

‘Small price to pay’

One of the largest portions of money that would be spent under the bond issue would go toward technology. A total of $18.9 million would fund replacement of classroom projectors, copier scanners, servers, routers and switches at all 19 elementary school and the district’s four high schools, transportation department laptops, microwave radios, and network servers for the district office. There also would be replacement of student programs, laptops and network upgrades at all schools, and WiFi would be added on district buses. Many of the moves would occur in 2014, although a number of others would be spread across the remaining years of the program.

Much of the technology system is either outdated or approaching the end of its life, and board member Christine Pritchard said failing to address the issue would mean not holding up the district’s mission to students.

“If we can’t turn out students who have those skills because we can’t provide up-to-date technology we can’t meet the needs of the Common Core…I think we’re going be hearing a lot of grumbling from our community at that time as well,” she said during the board’s June 19 meeting.

“We kind of cringe before turning on our district laptop because it’s so slow. Mine is 7-years old, and I don’t think it was right out of the box when I got it. So I can only imagine how a lot of our computers are out there.

“I think it’s a small price to pay (to update the system,” she added.

The area garnering the most funding over the course of the 5-year program would come in the area of maintenance, where $23.9 million would be spent on such items as new roofs, floors, resurfaced parking lots, doors, mechanical equipment, paint, and playground equipment.

Security and safety upgrades would draw $3.8 million, with much of the money closing open areas in front offices, deemed potentially vulnerable following the December 2012 mass shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Funding also would go toward digital clocks, portable facilities and a ramada for maintenance sheds under the heading of school capital and totaling $1.3 million; and transportation, mainly the purchase of new buses, totaling $6.5 million. Bleachers would be added to a number of elementary school athletics fields as part of athletics upgrades totaling $980,000, and curriculum materials and programs would updated at a cost of $6.8 million.

As is the case with technology, many of the needs in these areas have gone unaddressed for years, district officials said. For example, the district’s Nov. 12, 2012, executive summary states, “the district has not purchased a new bus since 2009. The fleet of 164 buses is aging. Although the district has a thorough maintenance program, there is an urgency to start replacing the fleet on a regular rotation schedule. Because of the inability to replace buses over the last several years there is an ongoing need to replace engines and transmissions.

“There is also a growing need to transport special-needs students. These buses are some of the oldest in the district and need to be replaced at the rate of about eight (8) per year for the next three (3) to four (4) years,” the report continues.

There also is money set aside for a new elementary school to meet expected student growth. Enrollment was expected to reach 25,838 this academic year according to an October 2012 summary by then-Executive Director of Business Services Scott Thompson. Projections in a Nov. 12, 2012 5-year capital plan presentation see the district growing to about 28,500 pupils by 2017.

Ironically, DUSD officials had to shutter one elementary school earlier this year. The building housing Desert Moon school will be used for the Sundown Mountain Alternative Program after district officials decided it was costing too much to keep the facility open as an elementary school in an area where growth has been almost nonexistent.

Desert Moon is located in the northeast area of the district. Much of the current and near-future growth is taking place in the southwestern and western portions.

Charter curricula

Meanwhile, the charter school conversions will mean special emphasis on certain areas of curriculum.

At West Point Elementary, students will learn in an arts-enriched environment, according to the district’s application. Countryside would emphasize an advanced curriculum in math, science, English and foreign language. Canyon Ridge curriculum would be geared toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Luke would emphasis proficiency in one or more foreign languages and offer classes with more of a global perspective for youngsters.

District officials plan to conduct informational sessions with the public to explain the bond issue. That schedule will be finalized over the next few weeks, and announcements may come sometime over the summer.

This year’s general election will take place Nov. 5.

Dr. Pletnick said it is important that voters grasp the role the improvements would play beyond the classroom as well as inside it.

“Certainly the investment is in our students, but the property that you own as well. There is a great deal of information out there that shows that when you have a quality education system the values the house values in that community go up.”

News editor Jeff Grant can be reached at jgrant@newszap.com or 623-445-2805.

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