With Budget Cuts, Prop 123 May Not Be Enough For Struggling, Rural Districts
The American and Arizona flags wave in front of the Liberty Elementary School District office building. Beyond the building lies farmland, and beyond that the White Tank Mountains. There’s a lot of open air out here, and the district covers a lot of land in Buckeye — 400 square miles.
"Liberty is described as suburban rural," Superintendent Andy Rogers said. "We have farmlands and lots of neighborhoods and 3,500 students in six schools."
Rogers has seen a few new schools built in his nine years at Liberty. He’s also seen two water line breaks and a gas leak.
"[They] were significant issues that did impact school and could have been a lot worse," he said. "I anticipate running into more of those issues."
Liberty was one of the two districts where voters didn’t pass an override last November.
Now on the May ballot is Proposition 123, a measure that, if passed, would give 75 percent of what public schools were owed by dipping into the state land trust and parceling out sums over the next 10 years.
Rogers is concerned voters won’t pass another override Liberty could put up to vote this year, which happened when a similar proposition passed several years ago.
"My worry is that similar to 2010, voters will feel like they’ve addressed our needs in the schools and will be less likely to support," he said.
Rogers has done a lot to cut costs while keeping the same programs. But if the money windfall doesn’t come to Liberty, he’ll have to cut 10 teaching positions.
Rogers says the money from Prop 123, if it passes, may not be sustainable for Liberty over ten years without an override.
Down the road, that money would come as a relief to Saddle Mountain Unified School District superintendent Mark Joraanstad.
"If Prop 123 passes, our budget would increase $390,000," Joraanstad said. "Out of a budget of $9 million, that’s all the money in the world to us."
Saddle Mountain did pass an override last year, but only after a failed override pushed the district to go to a four-day school week this year.
Tammy Doerksen teaches at Tartesso Elementary, part of Saddle Mountain district, and has taken two pay cuts since she started working here in 2009.
"Last year we had to go to a four-day week because of funding. That’s made things difficult," Doerksen said. "It’s tricky as a teacher to get everything in four days to get kids ready for those state tests at the end of the year."
If Prop 123 passes, she’ll get a four percent raise. If it doesn’t pass, she’ll still work here, but with the same limitations she’s grown used to, though she says it’s gotten much better.
"I love our school. I love our administration. Things don’t change overnight and the changes that have been made have been great for school," she said.
In Arizona, almost 50 other school districts have made the switch to four day weeks, and Joraanstad said Saddle Mountain will keep it that way even if Prop 123 passes.
At both rural school districts, finding creative ways to save money is not something administration wants to rely on.
Rogers wants voters to be as informed as possible about where their vote goes this May.
"Prop 123 is a start in that it would address some of the cuts enacted and we’ve lived with for eight years, but it also comes at a price in terms of when you are tapping into principle of trust lands, that has long term consequences for the state," Rogers said.
Voters could still decide the fate of those rural schools beyond Proposition 123, as Rogers said, by looking at who they elect to the state legislature.