Sunnyside shouldn't need to go to the voters looking for funding

Let me start by making something clear. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal is someone I almost never agree with. I do not agree with his vision of what the state is, where it should be, or even the way he practices politics. This is a nice way of saying that he generally pisses me off.

However, he is someone with whom I shared a friendly relationship when we were in the Legislature together. We even managed to find a few occasions to work together. He grew up on the south side, in a neighborhood near the one where my mother grew up and where I live now. His parents were my constituents. There was some common ground, just not much of it.

This said, I was quite happy with what Hupe did last week when he showed up at the Sunnyside school board meeting with two personal checks totaling $10,000 for scholarship programs in the district. He also used his time at the podium to call upon board members to stop fighting with each other and instead focus on the needs of the district's students.

The substance of the dispute that divides the factions on the board has been almost forgotten as the feud has turned personal. The ill feelings have led to dueling recalls (none of which are likely to yield anything), vague (and thus far unsubstantiated) charges of corruption, and some jackass with a copier putting out a tasteless flier. All of this tends to support the local media's usual dismissive narrative that politics on the south side are petty and corrupt, so the bickering—and not the real issues that face the community—have dominated the discussion.

The tragedy here is that there is a larger and more immediate issue that should be dominant instead. On Nov. 5, voters in the Sunnyside Unified School District will head to the polls to vote on Proposition 405, a budget override the district needs to pay for support staff such as nurses, librarians and counselors, and to extend extracurricular programs like athletics and fine arts. The measure is supported by a broad coalition in the community and has no organized opposition.

That the district has to go to the voters is a product of the state's negligence in regard to education funding. Time and time again, the Legislature has been told by the courts that its neglect of our school system violates its obligations under the state constitution. Just last week, the Legislature lost yet another court case about public school funding, and, as usual, lawmakers responded with defiance.

At best, our lawmakers have addressed these concerns with half-measures. The result has been a labyrinthine system of school funding that is almost impossible to explain to anyone who expects common sense, and too often falls just short of addressing needs. The Sunnyside High School campus itself provides a concrete example of the result of this. While what the community needs is for the current facility to be demolished and replaced by an entirely new building, this cannot be funded. So instead, the school has been expanded piecemeal, spread out over more than a dozen buildings, which is hardly cost-effective in the long run. Simply keeping up with emptying the trash cans becomes a logistical nightmare.

Vail School District, one of the wealthiest districts in Southern Arizona, got an override passed in 2011. Catalina Foothills School District, also quite affluent, has asked for an override this year. While there are always internal issues that need to be addressed, it is clear that a district's wealth or management issues are not the central problem. The problem lies in a statewide system that does not adequately provide for our schools. Sunnyside needs this override regardless of who is in charge.

Unfortunately, the discussion has focused on personalities rather than policy. There are some on the board who continue to make the conversation about old grudges or their personal ambitions. These are unfortunate, and perhaps destructive, distractions. The only priority should be the district's children and the future of our community.

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