Override from both sides

Friends, foes discuss issue
The Arizona Republic
Friday, February 28, 2003
Anne Ryman

SCOTTSDALE - Supporters of the upcoming budget override election in the Scottsdale Unified School District say that it may not be a slam dunk despite their high-profile campaign - and that they're taking nothing for granted.

Although there is no organized opposition, a number of dissenting voices spoke out at a community forum on the override at Scottsdale Community College and said they plan to vote no at the polls March 11.

The one-hour forum Wednesday night was sponsored by the Scottsdale Republic. In addition to critics, the forum also drew a number of supporters from the Scottsdale Parent Council, the largest districtwide parent group in the Scottsdale School District.

Critics say they have various reasons for opposing the override. While all say they support education and the schools, some disagree with the way the school district spends money. Others don't want higher taxes at a time when the economy is bad.

Overrides allow school districts to spend 10 percent more than state-imposed spending caps. The Scottsdale district has had an override in place since the late 1980s, but voters in November 2001 didn't approve an extension of it. The override is being phased out over three years unless voters approve the ballot measure next month.

Joseph Mistovich, 78, is a retired electrical engineer who said Arizona school districts should do a better job managing their utilities. He said he will vote no on the override for this reason.

If he voted yes, he said he would feel that "it's a reward for incompetence, poor management, and it gives them no incentive to improve."

Supporters, however, say the override is essential. Two years ago, the override was paired with a bond issue, and though there was no organized opposition, both failed by a wide margin. This time, supporters are trying to keep their message out there.

They plan another push next week to prospective voters by running telephone banks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

"We're still doing everything we can to make sure people understand the issue," said Joan Agostinelli, president of the Scottsdale Parent Council, which supports the override. But she recognizes that "some people's minds are made up."

Overrides fund many valuable programs, said Bob Flach, the Scottsdale district's chief financial officer and a panelist at Wednesday's community forum. District officials have said they may have to cut up to 179 teaching positions and raise class sizes. Art, music, physical education and athletics also could be cut or eliminated.

Michael Hunter, one of Wednesday's panelists and vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, said it is a common tactic for school boards or municipalities to mention cuts in essential services if voters don't pass an override.

Hunter said he is not suggesting Scottsdale is up to any chicanery but said people should hold supporters accountable for their rhetoric.

Questions at Wednesday's forum also touched on the number of assistant principals and Scottsdale's administrative costs. A recent Arizona Auditor General's report on administrative expenses said Scottsdale spends $536 per student, compared with the state average of $599. The district puts 59 percent of its dollars in the classroom. The state average is 58 percent, according to the report. Neighboring Paradise Valley Unified School District puts 64 percent of its dollars in the classroom while Mesa and Deer Valley put 62 percent.

Not counted in the 59 percent spent in the classroom is money spent to pay support staff, such as nurses, librarians and school resource officers, Flach said. He said the district's central administrative staff makes up 2.3 percent of the budget. Even if all the central administration was cut, it wouldn't solve the financial problems, he said.

Clerical staff also isn't included in the classroom instruction percentages.

The Scottsdale district has been criticized for its number of assistant principals. Last year, a survey of neighboring districts showed that Scottsdale had 43 assistant principals at 32 schools, more than twice what the larger Paradise Valley Unified School District has at its 36 schools.

Flach said some school districts use the term "teacher on assignment" when a teacher is working as an assistant principal. Scottsdale has cut its assistant principals by 4.5 positions this year, he said. Some are serving more than one school. The number of assistant principals is an area district officials will continue to examine, he said