Fun With Funds

TUSD officials say everything's on track regarding the 2004 bond package

Before the vote, Tucson Unified School District's 2004 bond and override election was compared to a three-legged stool. The entire package was promoted as a way to improve education by lowering class sizes while upgrading facilities.

But voters approved only the $235 million bonds, saying no to the budget overrides that would have provided TUSD extra cash.

So what has happened with implementing the one-legged program?

"I'm pleased with the progress," announces Earl Mendenhall, a member of TUSD's Bond Fiscal Oversight Committee. "The process of implementation got off to a little bit of a slow start ... but in the last year we've caught up and are right on schedule."

With $235 million to use over a nine-year period, TUSD so far has spent or committed $61 million. Much of this money, Mendenhall says, is going toward replacing portable classrooms with permanent structures.

"Doolen Middle School (in midtown) has a huge number of portables," says Marcus Jones, the district's director of bonds. "White Elementary School (on the westside) also has a large number."

A major objective of the 2004 vote was to use bond funds to build additional classrooms and staff them with new teachers, who would be paid with funds supplied by a $24.5 million budget override. Another $49 million override would have been used, in part, to furnish and equip these classrooms--but both overrides were rejected by 57-43 votes.

As a result, the push to achieve the district's goal of reducing class sizes to no more than 18 pupils in kindergarten through third-grade classes was set back considerably. While the target has now been met for kindergarteners and first-graders, the student-teacher ratio for second- and third-graders remains at 29-to-1, right where it was three years ago.

Mendenhall believes the TUSD should someday seek voter approval for another budget override. "Almost all school districts are operating under some sort of override," he says, "which says something about the funding system being broken."

Before those additional operating funds are sought, Mendenhall adds: "The district may want to narrowly define the override programmatically and focus on places where people are supportive." Plus, he believes the committee he serves on must build credibility with the public about how the 2004 bond funds have been spent.

As an indication of progress, Jones points to five high school practice gyms which are either in the design or bidding phase. The funds for these are part of $71 million set aside for constructing physical education and athletic facilities.

Another accomplishment of the program Jones mentions is replacing the all-portable campus of Mary Meredith, a small eastside school which educates severely emotionally disturbed students. Jones says construction on a permanent building is about 10 percent completed and should be finished by the fall of 2008.

But not everything has gone smoothly for the bond program. Both Mendenhall and Jones cite the construction inflation issue, with Jones pegging project cost figures as being 25 percent higher than expected.

"We've been adjusting," Jones explains, "and supplementing the projects with other funds while working with the schools to direct the money to their most critical needs."

By all accounts, one of the district's overall critical needs is improving its telecommunications and technology infrastructure and equipment. While there is $7.6 million in bond money available to address these issues, defeat of the overrides meant millions more were denied.

To supplement the bond funds, the district sought federal E-Rate money. (See "Elusive Funds," Nov. 9, 2006.) But continuing a four-year trend of failing to receive any E-Rate dollars, the latest application so far has not been selected for funding, even though numerous other districts throughout Arizona have been awarded money.

Jones says the telecommunication bond funds available will be used to create a basic technology grid centered around eight hubs. These hubs will eventually be used to provide improved technology service to every district school.

"This system," Jones says of the grid, "is required, no matter what type of network (wireless or fiber optic) is selected for the district. It's the basic backbone."

Another project moving forward is construction of a 300-space, two-story parking garage at Tucson High School. A concept report has been completed, and Jones thinks $3 million in bond funds will be sufficient to build the structure.

Two other projects still to be initiated are construction of a new elementary and middle school in the southwest sector of the sprawling district. More than $17 million was earmarked for these buildings, with an additional $2.4 available to purchase land if necessary.

"I hope we can use land the district already owns, to help counter the inflation impacts," Jones says.

As for locating and designing the new facilities, Jones indicates a planning process could begin soon with the goal of opening the schools by 2012.

Sale of the bond funds to build these schools along with all the other projects has impacted property taxes district-wide. In 2004, TUSD indicated a home with an assessed valuation of $110,000 would see an increase of about $50 a year.

With $104 million worth of bonds sold so far, and Jones expecting another $50 million or more to be sold next year, he says the district is comfortably meeting that property tax goal.

"It's been a key objective of ours to stay within that figure," Jones says, "and it really hasn't been a challenge. We're well below it."

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