Sun City Disease

Every 10 years, retirement communities sweat local school-funding increases and flare up in anti-tax fever. This year's infection is in the Dysart Unified School District.

"Mr. President, Mr. President, you have ignored me again."
The elderly bearded gentleman dances in the aisle like a small boy who has to pee, and he waves his hand contentiously, disrupting an already heated meeting of the Dysart Unified School District governing board.

The president summons him to a microphone.
"I had to stand up and shout like Sam Donaldson at the White House. What is going on?"

What's going on is that the Dysart district has been in the national news for months, ever since its hostile takeover by tax rebels from the nearby retirement community of Sun City West. Three retirees elected to the board last fall ran on a platform of getting themselves out of the district and out of having to pay secondary property taxes to build new schools. Then they started asking questions, rooting through the budget for ill-spent and unspent money like someone lifting the sofa cushions looking for loose change. And in the process they tore a community apart.

The elderly dissenter at the microphone harangues the new school board, taking side with the beleaguered school administration, though curiously, he lives in one of the nearby retirement villages that already don't pay school taxes. In other words, he's already got what the new board members want, and he himself doesn't pay anything to keep the schools going.

But he's got his two cents to offer, and he scolds until his allotted time runs out, but he never actually makes a point, which does not go unnoticed by the school board president, Robert Koch.

"He seems to have a lot to say, but very little meaningful," Koch retorts, raising shocked and disapproving cries of "ohhhh" from the 200 people or so in the audience in the Dysart high school cafeteria.

The new board members and the incumbents are so at odds with each other that they don't make eye contact and instead stare sullenly toward the audience. At least half of the spectators are retirees from Sun City West, come to give support to their champions on the board. They stand up at the microphone to excoriate the school administration and get hooted down by the school-kid parents. Then the parents and the teachers step forward to dress down the old-timers, who rail and rattle back.

"When you were elected to the school board, you were elected to represent everyone," Buster Estrada, head of the teachers' organization, tells them while wagging a finger.

"Regardless of where you live in this country--except for one small place up the road--we all pay our taxes," one former board member shouts into the microphone.

And indeed, in Sun City and Sun City West, Arizona, and nowhere else in the nation, senior-citizen communities have cut themselves out of school districts. So instead of paying the secondary property taxes that fund school improvements and construction, the seniors pay a significantly lower "Qualifying Tax Rate" of $2.20 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Herein lies the Dysart fight. The newer parts of Sun City West, referred to as the Sun City West expansion, lie within the Dysart boundaries, and those seniors who live there question why they should pay more than the neighboring seniors when they don't have children in the schools, either.

The district administration, including the soft-spoken and well-loved superintendent, Dr. Jesus de la Garza, and the not-so-soft-spoken Estrada, had loudly and publicly blamed the seniors for the district's financial distress. The seniors, after all, had voted down a series of bond and budget-override initiatives that would have raised monies but also would have raised property taxes. Coast to coast, Dysart became another silly Arizona story, coots versus kids.

Joan Shaefer, the feisty grandmotherly mayor of the city of Surprise, which overlaps the Dysart district, told the Washington Post that the retirees were "selfish, self-centered gray-haired old farts."

Infuriated by the derision, the vindictive residents of Sun City West staged a democratic coup last fall and took over the board. On March 10, they will likely score another board seat in a recall election, and they will vote on whether the Sun City West expansion area will be allowed to "de-annex," that is, secede from the district altogether.

After the last bond issue failed last year, the administration dramatically sliced nearly $800,000 from the budget by drastically cutting school programs. The senior community argued that the district just didn't know how to manage its money; the more paranoid factions screamed that the administrators had plenty of money that they were hiding or unaware of.

Then, to everyone's surprise, it came to pass that they did. Audits turned up what may amount to as much as $1 million in unallocated funds that could have been spent on teacher raises and lost programs. So far, no one can explain how that happened.

Though 65 to 70 percent of the district's 4,000 kids are Hispanic, there are very few brown adult faces here at the school board meeting, and most of those belong to teachers. And that's the problem. Although the seniors compose only about a third of the electorate, they vote as a bloc, and the Hispanics barely vote at all. The result has been lopsided representation on the board: Three of the five board members are retirees without kids in the district. One of the other two is facing recall on March 10 and will likely lose her seat to another retiree.

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