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Maricopa school district attempts to pass a lesser, shorter override

The Maricopa Unified School District is struggling and this election it hopes its fifth attempt to pass an education override will be the charm. The district, about 40 miles south of Phoenix, is asking voters for money to climb out of its budget slump.

NADINE ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: In each election since 2009, the District has asked voters for additional funding through an education override. That’s essentially a property tax increase that amounts to about $5 million over seven years. Each time, it failed.

STEVE CHESTNUT: We have dedicated teachers, dedicated classified staff, we have dedicated administrators and they’re doing a great job. I think that’s the main reason for the override proposal.

NADINE ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Steve Chestnut is the superintendent. This year, he and the school board decided to propose something different. They’re asking for a more modest $1.4 million per year for the next two years.

STEVE CHESTNUT:The economy is still tough and families, businesses have had to cinch their belts up a little bit.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Arizona law allows school districts to request an override for up to 15 percent of its budget. The funds could be used to pay for teacher salaries, hire more teachers to reduce class size, buy new equipment and technology, or for school maintenance. The Maricopa school district has been losing $2-3 million in state education money each year since 2008. This has trickled down to teacher salary freezes and layoffs. This school year the district had to let go of 15 teachers and lost more through attrition. Class sizes have gone up and other general education programs have been cut.

VIRGINIA MCELYEA: You know the economic downturn has not made it easy for any body.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Virginia McElyea is with the Arizona State University Teachers College. As a former Arizona school district superintendent herself, she says she knows how important an override can be.  

MCELYEA: When overrides don’t pass you have issues about cutting people’s jobs, about eliminating programs, about not being able to try out new programs. So, it can be very critical if you have a continued difficulty in not passing them.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: Administrators in Maricopa say the situation has become critical. The city grew astronomically during the housing boom. U.S. Census numbers show in the last decade the population mushroomed by more than 4,000 percent. When the housing market crashed, Maricopa became a classic example of the nation’s recession. Home foreclosures soared, leaving many of its neighborhoods desolate, and its residents suffered to stay afloat. Again, Virginia McElyea.

MCELYEA: The real challenge for Maricopa, and any district that has difficulty and can’t pass overrides, is that parents will choose other options.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: And that’s what’s happening to the district now. Several hundred of its students are bused to schools in the East Valley. Charter schools have sprouted around town and teachers are fleeing to those higher paying jobs. At the local Fry’s food store, residents say they’re hesitant to support this struggling system. The district’s statewide ranking has recently fallen to a ‘C,’ a grade that based on standardized AIMS test scores. Teresa Andújar is a retired school teacher who says the two-year proposal proves to her the district is desperate and not thinking long term.

TERESA ANDUJAR: I wouldn’t vote…absolutely not. No. If there was more planning involved I think I would feel more comfortable voting for that proposition.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: But others disagree, including Myisha Meniefield. Her three children attend a local charter school.   

MYISHA MENIEFIELD: We definitely needed it, you know.  I definitely know that something needs to be done to improve the education system, to support teachers and yeah just to put back to our children, into our schools.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: That’s the kind of support Superintendent Chestnut is looking for. He says asking for less money over a shorter period of time shows commitment and compromise by the district.

CHESTNUT: I’m an optimist. The glass is half full.

ARROYO RODRIGUEZ: And, he says, in two years the economy will be stronger and Maricopa residents will be more willing to support its schools again.