Dana Hawman explains AJUSD’s 15% override

It is generally unproductive to get into a “tit for tat” discussion in the media, so, as the public relations coordinator for the Apache Junction Unified School District, I have tried to remain focused on the many positive things going on in our district. There have, however, been a few themes in the public discussion of the override that have been stated persistently, confidently and vociferously, but, unfortunately, without the backing of facts. As an individual taxpayer who happens to hold a position that affords an in-depth knowledge of the topic, allow me to provide those facts:

1) Teachers have and do quit because AJUSD cannot afford to pay competitive wages. The district has a turnover rate of nearly 30 percent. Most of those who leave are in their first one to six years of teaching; the years when they are fine-tuning the skills they learned in college and adjusting to the real-world of student engagement and classroom management. Then, when they have gained the experience needed to maximize their effectiveness, they are recruited by neighboring districts that can afford to pay better wages. Yes, we also have many teachers who have worked here 10 years and even 20 or 30 years, but the turnover of nearly one-third of our employees every year is a big problem in terms of productivity, consistency and quality of instruction.

2) The quality of the classroom instructor is a critical component of student success. Without the means to offer competitive wages, the AJUSD Governing Board reached outside the box to find ways to attract and retain quality, experienced staff. The four-day week was initially explored as an option to save money, but research quickly showed that the shortened week seldom nets as large a savings as anticipated. It does, however, offer the unique benefit of time in a profession that is notoriously time-consuming. If we can retain experienced teachers by offering an extra day off, then we can increase the quality of classroom instruction, thereby increasing student achievement.

Has the four-day week achieved the desired effect? The district did not have to hire as many teachers this year; and the four-day week seems to be popular with many teachers who enjoy the longer class periods, which allow them to delve deeper into topics, encouraging students to reach higher levels of learning. And teachers enjoy being able to grade papers and prepare lesson plans at home on Friday, leaving time to actually spend with family on the weekends. Others, however, report that they are exhausted by the end of the week. (Keep in mind that the total amount of time that students spend in class has not been reduced; the work-day has been extended and half-days nearly eliminated, so students – and teachers – are in class just as long as they would be in a traditional five-day week.)

So, the outlook is hopeful, but not definitive. The board has requested a detailed report on teacher retention, student enrollment and student achievement in order to analyze the effectiveness of the four-day week. The reports will start next month and the data will be continuously collected and analyzed until early spring. With or without the override, the board will decide at that time whether to maintain the four-day week, return to a traditional five-day schedule or seek another option such as the modified year-round calendar. The passage of the override will allow greater flexibility in their decision, but does not guarantee a return to the traditional week. The overall goal remains focused on student achievement.

3) AJUSD district administrators make 15 percent to 20 percent less than their peers in neighboring districts. Their wages have been subject to the multi-year freeze, just the same as everyone else in the district. Dr. Wilson does not make $200,000 per year. In fact, his pay is approximately the same as the starting pay of high school principals in the Florence Unified School District where I worked previous to AJUSD. Wages and all budget and expenditure information is public information, available 24/7 online through the Arizona Department of Education website. Go to www.ajusd.org, and click on the “M&O Override Facts” button for easy links to the district budget and financial reports on the ADE website.

4) Voters do have guarantees that money from the override – and every other source of school revenue – is used as the district says it will be. Nearly every revenue source for the district has strings attached; laws that state what the funds can and cannot be used for. Independent, state and IRS auditors set up camp in the district office multiple times each year, combing through district and school records to verify that funds are appropriately used and thoroughly documented. In the case of the override, any funds generated can only be used to achieve the five stated goals:

•Re-address the current four-day week schedule
•Class-size reduction
•Reduce the cost of athletics, extra-curricular and class fees
•Competitive compensation
•Improve student achievement

The board has not determined a specific budget for each goal, because the four-day week is still being studied; however, each goal will receive funding – and, by state law, multiple auditors will be sure the money goes nowhere else.

5) The cost of the override to property owners is based on the secondary assessed value of the home. Not many people understand the math behind the assessment; even after analyzing the sample provided in the informational pamphlet sent out by the Pinal County School Superintendent’s Office, the math is not clear. I recently had a single mom tell me that she would love to support the override, but she couldn’t afford the additional $500 per year that it would cost her in taxes. She was quite surprised when I informed her that she would have to own a home with an assessed value of nearly $600,000 for the override to cost her $500 per year. Keep in mind that the tax is based on assessed value, not market value. And there is a step where you have to divide by 100 (“per $100 of net assessed valuation”) that throws most people off. If you want to take advantage of a quick and easy tool to determine the cost of the override to you, go to www.ajusd.org, and click on the “M&O Override Facts” button to access a simple tax calculator. You might be surprised.

6) A “15 percent override” does not mean a 15 percent increase in property tax. It means that the dollar amount to be generated by the override is 15 percent of the revenue control limit, which is set by the state, and essentially (simplistically) dictates the district’s M & O budget. Therefore, the dollar amount to be generated by the override is independent of property values.

So – if the override is calculated to raise $20 million over seven years (based on the RCL) and property values go up, then the property tax percentage needed to raise that amount of money goes down – like a see-saw. If home values decrease, then the property tax percentage needed to generate the same level of revenue goes up. Either way, the dollar amount to be generated through property tax remains the same. Because of this, it behooves community members to do what they can to increase property values so that their property tax rate goes down. Real estate professionals will tell you that maintaining a high-quality educational system is one of the most influential factors in increasing property value.
Dana Hawman
San Tan Valley

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