Maricopa High School is over capacity by 30%, something the students experience every day. The question is how to deal with growth in a way that is fair to students and taxpayers. Photo by Joycelyn Cabrera

By Joycelyn Cabrera

Proposition 437 introduces a $68 million bond on the November ballot for the main purpose of building a second high school in Maricopa Unified School District. The bond has sparked dialogue among Maricopa residents.

Residents within MUSD debate on social media about the proposition, the differences between bonds and overrides, and whether to vote on additional educational funding after just having approved an override.


Proposition 437 seeks $68 million bond

Nov. 5 is a special election for registered voters of MUSD 20 to vote on a general obligation bond, which will fund the construction of a second high school and general, long-term maintenance for school district property.

General maintenance will include improvement to roofing throughout the district and repairing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems on the current high-school campus, as well as safety enhancements for schools and the purchase of buses for the district.

The Arizona School Facilities Board approved $23 million in early 2019 specifically for construction of a new high school and additional funds for the purchase of land.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said $23 million is not enough funding to build a high-functioning school with the same standards as the current Maricopa High School.

“This is for a starter high school. It is not meant to build an entire, comprehensive high school. It doesn’t cover football fields, gymnasiums, it doesn’t even pay for carpet,” Lopeman said. “It only pays for the beginnings of a high school, for the beginnings of a population as well. It’s not meant to cover the entire investment.”

The $68 million from the bond would be added to the $23 million already allocated.

“We envision a comprehensive high school that provides the amenities and the enriched, robust programing,” Lopeman said, “while not the same as at Maricopa High School, but the same quality, the same richness.”

Leftover funding after reaching the $70 million mark will be used for general maintenance, equaling out to potentially $13 million for district maintenance to repair older buildings, upgrading buses and maintaining HVAC systems.


Maricopa High School over-capacity

In that 10 years, the student population has essentially doubled, but our campus footprint has stayed the same.

MHS was originally built for 1,900 students maximum, according to Principal Brian Winter. The school is 600 students – more than 30 percent – over capacity. And the 2,500-student enrollment increases daily, and the school continues to enroll students on a daily basis, he said.

“I think that there is a host of benefits to the proposition passing,” Winter said. “A second high school in our community will create a positive rivalry with Maricopa High School and take the stress and burden of the continued growth that we’re experiencing off of this campus.”

Temporary portable classrooms have been implemented on campus to relieve large class sizes, which began ranging from 25 to 40 students last year.

Aiden Balt is an English teacher at Maricopa High School and a National Board-certified educator.

“I’ve been working for the district for 10 years, and in that 10 years the student population has essentially doubled, but our campus footprint has stayed the same,” Balt said. “Many people are aware that we have contracted for 16 portable classrooms that are currently on campus. That’s a temporary solution to our numbers.”

Students say their quality of education is affected by the school sitting at over-capacity.

Francis Trast is a junior and part of the Air Force JROTC program at the school as well as a member of the cross-country team.

“We do have some overcrowded classrooms. The German courses is one of the ones that’s particularly overcrowded, because everybody needs to get a foreign language,” Trast said. “I know my German classroom has, I would say, 35–40 kids in it, so it’s always kind of loud and boisterous.”

Freya Abraham is a senior, currently at the top of her class. Abraham said she personally cannot focus or efficiently learn in large classrooms.

“I’ve heard and known students whose quality of education has taken a hit because of overcrowding,” Abraham said. “When I talk to kids, even if they’re not ready for that level, I recommend honors and AP solely because of the class size. With 45 people in the classroom, I don’t know how you can be motivated in a class where you don’t even have chairs to sit in.”


Plan B?

Should Proposition 437 not get approval from voters, MUSD 20 still plans to begin working to relieve over-crowding at the high school by using the $23 million to explore different avenues.

This could potentially include a small start-up school with basic necessities, adding classrooms on the current campus, or purchasing land before waiting on another election to turn to voters once again.

“We don’t want to have overcrowded classrooms at Maricopa High School. That’s one of the intentions of the bond is to build a second high school so that we can provide safe environments for all of our kids and quality instruction,” Balt said.


Financing and tax-payer money

What you find is that property taxes increased so high over time that it forced people out of the community.

Many residents of MUSD 20 turned to social media to voice their concerns about the resulting tax increase should the proposition pass, particularly because of the tax increase from passing an MUSD 20 override in 2016.

Informational pamphlets on the proposed bond were sent to Maricopa residents amid early-voting season. Should the bond pass, property taxes for Maricopa homeowners will increase at an assessed 10% value of residential property, according to the pamphlet.

The law uses assessed value rather than market value for determining property taxes. For instance, a property that sold for $236,000 in October has an assessed full cash value of $134,995.

Residential property assessed at a $100,000 value would see a tax increase of about $10.15 a month, creating an annual estimated cost of $122 each year. The pamphlet specifies, “an owner-occupied residence valued by the County Assessor at $250,000 is estimated to be $311.91 per year” in additional taxes.

Chester Szoltysik, a 15-year Maricopa resident and director of Information Systems at AmeriFirst Financial, previously worked in the Chicago Police Department and Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board. Szoltysik said he is concerned the growth of the community will slow down or come to a halt with tax increases.

“What you find is that property taxes increased so high over time that it forced people out of the community,” Szoltysik said. “For example, in the state of Illinois, it’s one of the few states that’s actually seeing a population decrease. They’re seeing people leave the state to go to places with lower property taxes.”

Szoltysik has no children in the district and said his stance on the proposition may change if he felt a stronger obligation toward supporting additional educational funding.

Many Maricopa residents voiced their concerns on social media for tax increases in cases of fixed incomes or no personal connection with the school district.

Torri Anderson, a member of the Arizona School Boards Association and MUSD 20 Governing Board, said the state Legislature creates issues in tax increases for local districts.

“The state needs to be accountable to the taxpayers and put the money into public schools, which is taxpayer accountability,” Anderson said. “It’s really time for the taxpayers to start demanding that they know where their money goes.”


Bonds and overrides

Bonds are capital projects, things like construction of buildings, new roofs, new HVAC systems, buses.

Money approved for an override can only be allocated for a specific purpose, just as money approved for bonds can only be utilized for specific projects.

According to the Arizona School Board Association, overrides can have money allocated for maintenance and operations expenses as temporary solutions (or with a short-term expectancy) or in supporting specific programs that may have to be renewed (such as funding salaries for additional staff).

Bonds are used to fund capital equipment that has a life-span of more than five years without getting renewed in any way, according to the ASBA. This would include funding the construction of buildings, long-lasting repairs and maintenance, and updated safety and transportation systems.

Maricopa Unified School District #20 has had six bond approvals in its long history. Here are the previous three:

  • 2006 bond election for $55,700,000 was issued over 5 series, the latest maturity is July 1, 2029.  ($6,220,000 authorization went unissued as it expired in November 2012).
  • 1996 bond election for $3,885,000 was issued in 3 series, the latest maturity was 2013.
  • 1987 bond election for $3,000,000 was issued in 4 series, the latest maturity was 2002.

Both bonds and overrides require voter approval from residents in the district. MUSD bonds elections for capital improvements have fared better than override elections over the past 15 years.

In 2005, an override passed with 67% approval, followed by a successful bond election in 2006, passing with 78% of the vote.

However, since 2009, five overrides were brought to voters and failed, with disapproval ranging from 55% to 68% up until 2016, when the first override in 10 years passed by 56% of voters to pay for more teachers and additional technology.

“The override was a maintenance and ops override that is permission from the voters to exceed the budgeted amount that is allocated to the schools by 10%. It’s maintenance and operations money that’s meant to be spent in one year,” Lopeman said. “Bonds are capital projects, things like construction of buildings, new roofs, new HVAC systems, buses… it’s things that have a lifespan of more than one year.”

Money approved for overrides, whether capital or special, cannot be re-allocated to fund bonds or anything outside of what falls under each category, according to state law. Likewise, money approved for bonds cannot be utilized for projects that would fall under an override.

The 2006 bond was the most recent long-term, capital-projects funding passed by Maricopa voters, according to county records. That bond built several schools in the district, Butterfield, Santa Cruz, Saddleback and Pima Butte elementary schools and Desert Wind Middle School.


Statewide trend

It’s a math equation; more students need more resources, and the state hasn’t done it, so therefore we have to ask our neighbors.

MUSD 20 is not the only district to turn to voters during the 2019 election season. School districts in all but five counties are asking voters for approval on bonds and overrides on their November ballots, according to Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization that works with the Legislature to improve Arizona public schools.

Dawn Penich-Thacker is the co-founder and communications director for Save Our Schools Arizona. Penich-Thacker weighed in on the statewide context of Proposition 437.

“Arizona politicians have cut the funding, but our needs are higher because people move here,” Penich-Thacker said. “It’s a math equation; more students need more resources, and the state hasn’t done it, so therefore we have to ask our neighbors.”

Many counties are proposing overrides and bonds for multiple school districts per county, with only a few counties voting on one district. Pinal County will see four bonds and four overrides go to voters.

“Over the last 10 years, MUSD has incurred $19.1 million in cuts to capital funding,” Balt said. “Our projected budget for 2020 only funds about 70% of our allotted capital items, and that is a direct effect of the cuts that have been made at the state level.”

Over 40 Arizona public school districts will be voting on bonds and overrides this Nov. 5.

“Public education serves every single child in the state. Public education services everybody, and we are a diverse, equitable education,” Anderson said. “It’s not pick and choose. We educate every child.”

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