Can a one-on-one approach help pass a school district budget override that has already failed five times?
Members of the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon/Peralta Save Our Schools organization hope so. On July 11, they began going door-to-door to discuss with active registered voters in Apache Junction the merits of a proposed 15-percent maintenance and operations budget override for the Apache Junction Unified School District.
The override will be voted on in a special election that will take place Nov. 3, according to the Pinal County Elections department website.
The district’s first override passed in 1999 and was renewed in 2003. Further votes failed in May 2007 and November 2007, 2009 and 2010, according to earlier stories published by the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon Independent.
The last attempt to pass the override was the Nov. 4 general election, when voters turned down the proposed 15 percent M&O budget override that would have raised approximately $3.2 million each year. According to the unofficial final results (19 of 19 precincts reporting) updated Nov. 10, the override received 6,065 “yes” votes and 7,946 “no” votes, according to election coverage in the Independent.
The override would have allowed the district to overcome a $2.7 million budget shortfall and prevent large class sizes, improve school safety and offer competitive salaries to teachers, school district Superintendent Dr. Chad Wilson said in a Sept. 18 phone interview.
As a result of the failed override, the school district governing board voted to shut down Superstition Mountain Elementary School, 550 S. Ironwood Drive in Apache Junction, leaving three elementary schools to serve the district; and approved a four-day work week starting this fall.
The Save Our Schools organization was formed during last fall’s attempts to pass the override.
Part of its mission is to build stronger community support for public education, according to its Facebook page at AJ/GC Save Our Schools Discussion.
Committee members have met regularly since the general election and manned an information booth at the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration.
They hired election consultant Stanford Prescott to share his experience with previous budget overrides, SOS member Cassandra Knox said during an interview.
Mr. Prescott is a member of the Phoenix Union High School District governing board and oversees the Center for Neighborhood Leadership, which assists working families with their grassroots efforts to improve the policies that affect their lives, according to its Facebook page.
The SOS committee hopes he can bring an objective viewpoint to its override efforts, committee member Holly Stuber said during an interview.
His fee is paid for by donations to the committee, Ms. Knox said. She would not disclose how much he is being paid for his services.
In addition, SOS members collected in April 1,078 signatures on a petition to place another proposed override on the ballot for this fall, according to Ms. Knox.
The signatures included 194 from people who told petitioners they did not vote in the 2014 general election but supported the override, Ms. Knox said.
SOS presented the signatures to the school district governing board, and on June 9, the board voted 5-0 to approve this fall’s special override election.
“I really think that this is a responsibility that the community needs to undertake,” board member Mike Weaver said in part at the June 9 meeting, according to a press release from the school district. “The fact is the override is not ‘extra money.’ It is labeled as extra money on the ballot intentionally so that the voters will think it is and vote against it. The fact that overrides are in place in more than 75 percent of districts — and more like 85 percent of districts in our area — makes it the level of the budget. It’s the level of the water and our district boat is below the level of the water right now, and that is a precarious spot.”
Despite the unanimous vote, not all the governing board members fully support the election, according to the release.
“Up until the Save Our Schools group asked us to put the override back on the ballot, I don’t think that it was even a consideration for any of us,” board vice president Wendy Moore said in the release. “I don’t think the override failed in the past because people didn’t work hard enough. It failed each time because people in this area didn’t want it passed. I haven’t heard any specifics from anyone about how there’s a new narrative to talk to these folks; I haven’t heard anything different other than enthusiasm. Maybe that’s enough.”
The election will cost the district between $48,000 and $60,000 as it is required to pay the election expenses, school district spokeswoman Dana Hawman said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The amount varies depending on whether other entities have issues on the same ballot and will help cover shared expenses, Ms. Hawman said.
With the election approved, SOS volunteers are now dedicating their time to reaching voters and registering residents to vote. Sixteen SOS volunteers from Apache Junction and Gold Canyon attended a pre-canvass meeting July 11 at Cobb’s Restaurant and Lounge, 944 W. Apache Trail, according to a printed summary of events provided to the Independent by SOS member Roberto Reveles.
The group that morning consisted of parents, students, recent high school graduates, new Apache Junction residents and retirees, according to the summary.
Attendees were briefed on the tasks to be completed that day. Each was assigned a voting precinct with a list of targeted frequent voters before spending about 1.5 to two hours going door-to-door to discuss the override, Mr. Reveles said during an interview.
Apache Junction High School graduate Dana Jessup, 18, was a canvasser that day. She was a part of a four-person group consisting of her mother, another AJHS graduate and a current high school student who visited about 25 homes, she said during a phone interview.
She said the group received “mostly positive” feedback and registered one person to vote. Some people did not want to speak to them, and one closed the door before hearing what they were there to discuss, Ms. Jessup said.
One person told her the school district needs to work within its means, she said. Ms. Jessup told him when she attended high school, she enjoyed participating in its theater department.
She told him that due to budget cuts, this year’s students will have to pay to participate in the same program she enjoyed for free, she said.
Ms. Jessup said she will continue to volunteer for SOS as a way to be involved in the community.
The organization’s next community outreach will be a phone bank to reach voters.
With an elementary school closed and change to the school week, Ms. Stuber hopes the community will consider voting in favor of the override.
“The climate of ‘everything is going to be OK’ in Apache Junction has changed,” she said during an interview. “I voted (in the 2014 election) but I didn’t campaign. Now our goal is to motivate people to get to the polls.”
Apache Junction Mayor John Insalaco feels in order for the override to pass, it must have the full support of the board, he said in an interview.
“I believe the school board should involve themselves in the process in whatever way they can,” he said.
Governing board members are not allowed to campaign for the override while serving in their official capacity representing the school district, Ms. Hawman said. However, they can as private citizens ask people to vote, or not vote, for the override, Ms. Hawman said.
Some Apache Junction residents will not be swayed by one-on-one or other SOS efforts.
“Once again proving that governmental entities have no concept of living within their means, the governing board of the AJUSD has decided to seek a maintenance and operations budget override on this November’s ballot,” Barry Goldstein of Apache Junction wrote in part in a letter to the Independent. “Apparently, the board members have learned nothing from their repeated defeat at the polls over their last several override attempts. In fact, just to prove they still have the nerve to get right in the taxpayer’s face, they’re seeking a 15 percent override, the maximum amount permitted by law. When was the last time you received a 15 percent salary increase?”
No matter what the outcome of the election, Ms. Moore said the district will continue to face financial challenges.
“Because of the hard decisions we made earlier this year, we as a district have a balanced budget, and we are running in the black. It’s on the razor’s edge but it is in the black,” Ms. Moore said in the release. “I think that even if we do go out for an override, we cannot lose sight of other potential funding sources like developing a foundation. Our state government has proven itself to be unreliable with funding for public education; I don’t think this is the end of the cuts they’re going to make.“
For more information about the SOS organization, visit its Facebook page at AJ/GC Save Our Schools Discussion.
For more information about the school district, visit its website.
Editor’s note: The deadline to submit pro, con comments for the election pamphlet is 5 p.m., Aug. 14. To learn how to submit a comment, click here.