Steve Holmes

Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes, right, said an override is needed to make up for the upcoming loss of grant money.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

Two years ago, Sunnyside Unified School District asked voters to approve a budget override that would have brought an additional $12 million per year into the district and warned that if the proposition failed the district would have to make deep cuts.

But voters rejected the measure handily, just as they had rejected previous override attempts in 2013, 2012 and 2011.

After each failed override, the district had to cut millions from its budget, first laying off temporary workers, then teachers and librarians, and then, finally, shuttering the doors to several schools.

This year, Sunnyside Unified School District is once again asking voters to approve a budget override in the November election.

Sunnyside is not alone in seeking an override, which passes the cost of public education onto local residents.

Since the Legislature began slashing school funding during the Great Recession, more and more districts have sought budget overrides in an attempt to maintain services.

In Pima County, the Marana Unified School District is also seeking a budget override this November, though much smaller, after having passed a continuation on its existing 10 percent override just last year.

Sunnyside’s Proposition 457 will ask voters to approve a 12 percent maintenance and operations budget override, which would bring in an additional $9.5 million per year. It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home in the district an additional $222 per year, or $19 per month.

Marana’s Proposition 456 will ask voters to approve an additional 3 percent maintenance and operations increase, which would bring in an additional $2 million. That would cost the owner of a $100,000 home in the district an additional $25 per year.

But school districts often face a steep climb in pushing overrides, which increase property taxes for homes and businesses in school district boundaries.

Several factors affect whether voters are willing to accept the increased taxes, according to Paul Ulan, a political consultant who has run dozens of override campaigns and is working to pass Marana’s override this year.

Ulan said voters take into account the economy and their current property tax rate before making a decision whether to support additional taxes for education.

Additionally, if one unpopular measure is on a ballot, voters often get fed up or don’t differentiate between the issues and vote “no” down the line, Ulan said.

Often, an override election is viewed as an avenue for voters to express their opinion of school district leadership.

“In many ways, and it’s unfair, a bond or override is often a referendum on the superintendent and governing board,” he said.

Positive view
of Sunnyside

Jessica Kull, an elementary school teacher in Sunnyside and co-chair of the campaign supporting Prop. 457, is hopeful that after the series of defeats in past override elections, voters are now prepared to trust the district and approve this year’s override attempt.

The district has put to rest recent scandals — including a series of recall elections and the ouster of its former superintendent in 2014 — and Kull is hopeful voters will give the new administrators the benefit of the doubt and trust the district enough to approve the additional $9.5 million.

“It feels like the tide has turned and people are thinking more positively about the district,” she said, adding that the fiscal responsibility the district has shown in spending funds approved in a 2011 bond have also quieted critics.

Kull noted Sunnyside is one of only two districts in the Tucson area without an override, and the money is needed to ensure that the district can compete with its neighbors and offer students the same level of education as some of the more wealthy Tucson districts, regardless of their ZIP code.

Sunnyside district officials plan to use the override money to increase student achievement and family and community engagement by focusing on two areas: academics and sports.

On the academics side, the additional funding would help maintain and expand the district’s free after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, staff elementary schools with full-time specialists, establish a seven-period day at middle schools to allow students to take an extra elective, and expand internship programs and advanced high school electives.

About 70 percent of Sunnyside elementary schools have after-school tutoring programs, which are especially helpful for parents who work until 5 p.m. and don’t want their children home alone until then, according to Steve Holmes, the district’s superintendent.

But those programs are funded through federal grant money that will expire next year, Holmes said, and approval of the override would allow the district to implement the programs in every middle and elementary school.

“We basically have another year to fund these programs, which include these tutoring and enrichment. ... I think it works, and so I’d like to scale it up and not rely on a funding source that’s going away,” Holmes said.

Sunnyside elementary schools currently share art and music teachers and librarians. The bond would allow the district to hire one of each at every elementary school, Holmes said.

Adding an extra period for middle schools would not only benefit students, who would have more access to career and technical training, but also teachers, who would have more time to plan their lessons, Holmes said.

Kull noted that was partially a political decision. By appealing to teachers as well as parents, they are able to bring in a broader array of stakeholders, which will help the override’s chances at the polls.

The funds would also be used to reduce or eliminate high school athletic participation fees; buy new uniforms and other athletic equipment in a more timely manner; establish a district-wide elementary intramural athletics program; pay athletic transportation costs; increase coach staffing; and establish a dedicated grounds crew specifically for athletic programs.

Holmes said schools’ maintenance employees do the upkeep on athletic grounds, and in at least one case, a principal cuts the grass himself.

And although the district is hurting for basic academic tools, Holmes said sports are also a priority for many parents and students in the district.

“There’s a legacy of great athletic programs in Sunnyside that I think have been instrumental for a lot of success stories in our community,” he said, adding that sports bring the community together and build character in students.

Raises and a
digital boost

Marana Unified School District’s 3 percent override would be used primarily to pay for salary increases for teachers and support staff, and to maintain and expand the district’s focus on technology and digital learning tools.

Every student in MUSD is equipped with a Chromebook, which they use to do everything from accessing research to turning in homework.

But the district wants to ensure they’re getting the most for their investment by outfitting the computers with the latest software, according to MUSD spokeswoman Tamara Crawley.

“If we can open the door to digital resources in the classroom, students are going to have so much more opportunities to learn,” she said.

The district is also planning to use the override funds to offer higher salaries to attract and retain the best employees in a competitive environment.

Currently the starting salary for a certified teacher in MUSD is about $33,000, which is below the statewide average. Arizona’s average teacher pay is among the lowest in the United States.

Marana, like many school districts in Arizona, struggles to attract and retain teachers and has nine vacant teaching positions, Crawley said.

Sandy Faulk, a teacher in the Marana Unified School District and president of the Marana Education Association, said without the override, the district would continue to lose qualified teachers, which not only harms student achievement, but also costs the district more in the long run to train new teachers.

“If we don’t pass this, were going to continue, like many districts in this state, to lose really highly qualified teachers. We lose teachers every year because they simply can’t afford to do it anymore,” she said.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight