The Skinny

MATH MORATORIUM: There's good news and bad news in the state's apparent turnabout on the AIMS math test. State schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan showed an admirable willingness to listen to the arguments deployed by the opposition when she proposed delaying the math test requirement for two more years. But she took this unexpected step a full week after unprepared high school sophomores across the state had already suffered through the exam, an hours-long ordeal that tests not only geometry and algebra, but higher level finite math and probability.

Just last month Keegan told the Tucson Weekly that she would wait until the test results came back in September before reopening the discussion of whether the AIMS math test fairly tests what students have been taught. Evidently she didn't want to drop her news bombshell before the kids took up their number-two pencils on test day. An announcement that they didn't need to pass the test to graduate would likely have set off an avalanche of adolescent indifference--and possibly even worse results than last year's 89 percent math failure rate statewide.

Critics of the test, including the UA's Fred Stevenson, a veteran math professor, had argued that AIMS was just too hard for a common test, unfairly testing kids on three or four years' worth of college-prep high school math. That's a clear disconnect with the state requirement that high schoolers take only two years of math. To make matters worse, throngs of Arizona high schoolers have fulfilled that minimalist mandate by taking such gut courses as consumer math and general math, leaving them woefully unprepared to tackle the tough AIMS test.

This year's sophomores were the first class who were to be required to pass the test to earn their diplomas, getting five chances to take it before Graduation Day 2002. When they took the math test in early May, they went in believing that they needed it for graduation. Keegan's turnabout gives them a reprieve. She's now recommending to the state Board of Education that the math requirement kick in in two years, when this season's graduating eighth graders are sophomores in high school. A delay is exactly what teachers have been arguing for all along. The new window would give them at least a little time to start drumming algebraic equations and geometric theorems into the heads of every single student.

The reading and writing portions of the test, which have been much less criticized than the math, would remain in force. Current sophomores would still have to pass them to graduate and they may still have a hard time making the mark: last year's test-takers racked up a 70 percent failure in writing and a 39 percent flubbing in reading. And though a poor math showing couldn't keep them from graduating, like this year's juniors they'd still have their AIMS math scores tacked onto their transcripts.

Keegan may have been motivated in part by legal concerns--imagine a lawsuit damning the state for depriving a kid of a diploma for failing a high-stakes test, when the state's own public schools had failed to teach the kid what was needed to pass. Still, the delay would give everybody some breathing room; and instead of just aiming a gotcha test at the state's teens, Keegan's new compromise might actually give them a chance to learn the math they need. A state task force will study the math test mess over the summer, and ponder just what level of math should be tested; the state board is expected to rule on Keegan's recommendation after the task force issues a report.

IT'S TIME TO STOP DOUBLE TAXATION: Arizona's Republican legislators profess to be in favor of fewer taxes and less government. Well, thanks to a hardcore Democrat on the Tucson City Council, Steve Leal, the Republicans may get a chance to put our money where their mouths are.

Leal is readying a proposal for the May 22nd City Council meeting that, if passed here and in Phoenix, will do something that should have been done a long time ago, both in Tucson and Arizona as a whole.

"I'm going to propose that the city pursue legislation to have the state and the city no longer collect sales taxes on bond projects," the councilman says.

Think about it for a minute:

The voters, wishing to improve their community, agree to pay for, say a park recreation center, or a school, via a bond issue, which, ultimately, is paid off by their property taxes. But what happens when construction begins? A whole bunch of what goes into the project is subject to city and state sales taxes--about 60 percent of the total expenditure, on average, according to several studies.

"In other words," says Leal, "we're putting a sales tax on top of a property tax. If that's not outright illegal, it's certainly immoral."

And what happens because of this double taxation on the community's wishes to improve things? Say we're building a $3.6 million recreational center. The sales tax bite is roughly $250,000 on that--the price of air-conditioning versus evap cooling, perhaps, or the difference between a well-equipped exercise room and a big empty space.

City staffers argue that the additional tax money is needed to operate, manage and/or maintain what the bond monies build.

But Leal responds, "First of all, the city--and certainly the state--has so many other revenue sources available to it, that it seems unfair to tax the community's only available method for improving itself. Secondly, that argument doesn't hold water, in the city at least, when it comes to bonds for a new school, or even a storm sewer--the city has no O&M responsibilities for the school, and there's virtually nothing involved in overseeing a storm sewer one it's properly built."

The councilman estimates that if his hands-off approach to bond projects had been in place during the last two decades, Tucson would have roughly $88 million more worth of improvements in the ground and functioning.

"That's a lot of facilities, a lot of improvements," he says, adding that he has no idea what that figure would total for all the communities and schools and community college districts in Arizona.

Doubtless it would be impressive. Which is a good way to describe Leal's latest brainstorm.

BOBBY KNIGHT SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT: From several key high-level administrators to scores of field workers, the turnover rate in the Tucson Census office is rising. We hear that's because:

· There's an atmosphere of threats and intimidation to force people to produce results at whatever cost, even if they have to bend the rules to do so;

· Mid-level managers are being required to put in 50 or 60 hours a week, but are only being paid for 40;

· The staff is trying to meet production goals that were established assuming that 1,200 field workers would be collecting information. But only about half that many are working in the field, partly because management failed to hire enough people initially and partly because a lot of folks quit. Despite the understaffing, local administrators are insisting that the timeline for completing the census must be met. Yet they are doing little to correct the employee shortage problem, unless you consider demanding resignations from people left-and-right as a solution.

The antagonistic management style raises questions about the reliability of the results obtained. Maybe that's why more than one Tucson City Council member is contemplating asking for a recount of the results even before the original census is completed.

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