School Bonds

(NOTE: Given the misinformation floating around on social media about the Casa Grande Elementary School District request for a $44.66 million bond issue on the Nov. 8 ballot, CG News sat down with Dr. Frank Davidson, the district superintendent, for his views.)

Doubling the tax rate?

One of the arguments raised is that it would be another bond issue on top of the existing one, in effect doubling residents’ school tax rate. 

“We’ll be debt free in 2018 with paying off the old bonds that were last approved in 2005,” Davidson responded. “So once those bonds would be paid off that gives us that taxing capacity there so we can actually levy for $44.66 million and it stays at that same tax rate — assuming just a 1 percent increase in net assessed valuation over the next several years.

“When you look back, the average gain in net assessed valuation over the previous 10 years was at 6 percent, so a 1 percent projected gain is a pretty conservative guess going forward.”

The original thinking was for a bond issue of $52 million.

“That would have raised the tax rate,” Davidson said. “That would just be an end to the conversation. The committee didn’t recommend bonding for the full amount.

“We had a really good committee, the group of people on that was really, I think, very helpful. When we recruited people for that committee, we explicitly wanted to get Democrats and Republicans and Independents, people we knew hated taxes, people we knew that would approve, a pretty good group.”

The committee estimates that the new tax rate would be about 10 cents per hundred lower than the present assessment.

Why new buildings?

In addition to routine building repairs and replacing of buses in the district’s 70-bus fleet, most of the bond issue would provide new main buildings for Saguaro Elementary School and Casa Grande Middle School.

Another argument against the bonds floating around on social media is that the schools look fine when you drive by, so why spend the money on new ones?

“About a quarter of the funding would go toward just basic equipment and building,” Davidson said, “things like roofs, some flooring, air conditioning, heating. These things, they break.

“The building itself may last awhile. We’ve got Palo Verde that was built in the ‘50s and it’s still in use, but it underwent a $5 million renovation 20 years ago, which would probably be $10 million in today’s funds. 

“What we looked at is, what would it cost to take care of fixing everything. At Saguaro and Casa Grande Middle School, those two schools combined were about $11 million, so about a quarter of the total $44 million of the bond just to bring those up to standards.

“And that probably buys us another 20 years in those facilities, because they’re just old, whereas if you replace them, it’s about $17 million to replace one and you buy another 50 years.

“You know, they’re still useable, you could still continue to use them, but they’re going to become a money sink, that you just have to keep putting money in there to fix stuff.

“And that’s one of the struggles. Even just to have the power to even operate computers at Casa Grande Middle School has been a challenge, because it was built in the ‘50s. We’ve had to keep putting in new service panels there because you add computers that draw power, you add air conditioning that draws power.

“And the other thing about Casa Grande Middle School is, we don’t have as-builts, even, or blueprints for what’s underground, so if we go underground to fix something there, you’re hitting every plumbing line or electrical line you can imagine. It’s just a mess underneath there.”

The initial plan, Davidson said, is that new buildings at Casa Grande Middle School and Saguaro would be built on vacant space on the property, allowing students to stay at the present schools during construction.

“Kids would still go to Saguaro and Casa Grande Middle School,” he continued, “and then in ’18-’19 they would start attending the new facility.

“And in 18-19, the existing facilities would be razed, except for like the CGMS auditorium we would keep because you’re not building things like that anymore. It’s an 870-seat auditorium. It is an amazing building.

“We’ve air conditioned it — it used to have swamp coolers — we put new carpeting, we reupholstered the seats. It’s a nice facility. 

“And we would keep the gym, which was build in ’85, and Saguaro’s gym, which was built in 2004.”

The same for all students

One of the bond committee concerns was about equity across the city, Davidson said.

“Half of our schools were built in the last 13 years, if you look all the schools out north,” he continued. “Mesquite is about 20 years old.

“The concern was about that we need to be investing in every neighborhood, to make sure that every kid has the opportunity to go to a safe school, a well equipped school. That was part of the sentiment that drove them.

“I realize that’s not going to necessarily resonate with everybody out there, but I think the notion of equity was something that was of concern for them.”

What about Prop. 123?

Another unfounded argument against on social media is that voters passed Prop. 123, which they claim was to take care of everything schools needed.

Not quite true, Davidson said, noting that the Arizona Legislature had put a halt to schools funding meant to keep up with inflation.

“That was to settle the inflation funding, is all that did,” he said. “We were one of the plaintiffs. It provided about 70 percent of the lost inflation funding. Here it’s just teacher salaries.

“For 10 years, our district gets about a 2 percent budget increase for us in operating budget. Our teachers, they got a 4 percent salary increase this year, so that’s about what it paid for.”

The Prop. 123 money will not be used here for such things as buying new buses, repairing buildings, repaving parking lots.

“A district could do that,” Davidson continued, “but my argument was that for years I was arguing that when the Legislature stiffed us on inflation funding, 85 percent of our operating budget goes towards salaries for employees, so you’re stiffing the teachers. I thought it would be unethical of me to now say, well, we’re going to use that money for textbooks or something like that. It is far more important to us to invest in the classrooms, because that’s where the work of the district gets done. So it’s not intended to solve any capital problems, it’s just to fix the inflation funding issue for operating costs.”

New schools ambience, appeal

New schools are noticed by teacher candidates, Davidson said.

“The other thing I would just think about,” he continued, “when we think about older schools and that argument about, well, I went to an old school, it doesn’t matter, is the challenge for us today is that between 2007 and 2011 nationally there was a 37 percent decline in the number of people going into teacher preparation programs.

“And you combine that with the fact that about a quarter of Arizona’s teachers can retire in the next four years because they’re going to hit retirement age, all these baby boomers, it’s a train wreck.

“And so when you have a teacher that you’re trying to recruit to go into Saguaro or Casa Grande Middle School and they come and interview there and then they go out to McCartney Ranch or Desert Willow or one of the new schools and they say I don’t want to be in that old dump, I want to be in the new school.

“It’s a struggle.

“Maybe that seems shallow, but it’s a reality.”