Schools feel the pinch when it comes to growth in the West Valley
By Lori K. Baker
It’s back-to-school time. Will the children in the West Valley’s new residential developments have a neighborhood school to attend? At first, that question might strike you as odd. After all, many consider school the cornerstone of the neighborhood, something you automatically count on to be there. But officials in the West Valley’s fastest growing school districts say it’s not correct to make that assumption. “People assume there’s a place for their kid to go to school, but logistically it isn’t always so,” says Pete Turner, superintendent of Liberty Elementary School District in Buckeye.
Two potent forces have converged in the West Valley to create a school shortage: rapid growth and a school funding formula that fails to keep pace.
Mark Maksimowicz heads Dysart Unified School District, one of the Valley’s fastest growing districts. In the 2005-2006 school year, the student population shot up by 3,500 students, more than a 25 percent leap for a district with approximately 18,000 students. In a perpetual game of catch-up to meet the demand for classroom space, DUSD is expected to open four new schools in the 2006-2007 school year.
The long-term outlook looks even more daunting for the Liberty District. While it ended last school year with 3,000 students and five schools, Liberty is expected to have 35,000 students and 45 to 50 schools by 2020. “But that depends on what happens in the housing market over the next 15 years,” Turner says.
That means 15 years of wrestling with overcrowding for Turner and other West Valley superintendents, unless the state’s schools funding formula is changed.
The old school finance system relied on the secondary property tax, driven by the assessed valuation of a school district and general obligation bonding. In the old system, school districts could ask for voter approval for bonds of up to 15 percent of the school district’s assessed valuation as a way to keep pace with growth.
But all that changed in 1994, when the Arizona Supreme Court decided that the funding formula was unconstitutional in the landmark case, Roosevelt Elementary School District No. 66 v. Bishop.
Four years later, then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull signed legislation that dramatically reformed the way K-12 schools are constructed in Arizona. The legislation is known as Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today). Students FIRST moved responsibility for funding school construction and other capital items away from local districts to the state and phased out those local property taxes used to support capital expenditures. The new law created a state School Facilities Board to administer the system.
“I don’t think anyone realized at the time what was about to happen,” says Roxanne Morris, superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified School District in Tonopah.
Rapidly growing districts found it nearly impossible to keep pace with growth. The funding formula multiplies the number of students by the square footage and cost per square foot to determine the allocation. “By the time you can even begin construction you’re already overcrowded in some—if not all—of your schools,” Turner says. “Construction of a new school takes between eight to 12 months, so sometimes when a school opens, it’s already full. It makes it very difficult to keep up with growth without having overcrowded schools.”
Meanwhile, developers say the School Facilities Board’s cost per square foot doesn’t reflect the fact that construction costs have catapulted over the last few years. Barry Chasse, vice president of Adolfson & Peterson, developer of numerous Valley schools, says his company has seen a 30 to 40 percent hike in construction material costs—namely steel, copper and petroleum-based products—over the last two and a half years. Labor costs have also jumped 15 to 20 percent over the same period, he says. “The funding levels are inadequate in today’s dollars,” he says.
A solution? “It’s time for the School Facilities Board to be revisited,” says Jack Lunsford, president and CEO of WESTMARC. Fellow WESTMARC member Herman Orcutt, partner of The Orcutt/Winslow Partnership, says schools are a key component in the future of the West Valley’s successful economic development. “The quality of schools is an important fabric of the community,” he says. “Higher quality schools bring up the level of residential, commercial and business development.”
Meanwhile, savvy school district officials like Morris are discovering ways to free themselves from state funding straitjackets. She’s discovered a key is forging successful partnerships with developers, such as Joel H. Farkas, chairman of JF Companies. Forget golf courses and greenbelts. Farkas believes the wisest investment for developers is the neighborhood school. “Of all the things we could possibly do as a developer, that’s the most important,” he says.