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.

City officials also told the new anti-tax school board that impact fees would not generate enough money to build schools in a timely manner.

"They did not believe it," says Mayor Shaefer. "Mr. Koch wanted to turn around and pay $1,500 to bring in an authority on impact fees. Now here's a school district that's crying that they have no money to put doors on the rest rooms in a school [an issue the new board members brought up]: $1,500 could cover a lot of doors, couldn't it?"

The Reverend Mitchell Eickmann, one of the holdovers from the old school board, says, "Koch's idea is always to make somebody else pay. If a plan came up that we could make the state of New Mexico responsible for our funding, he would be for it."

Koch, on the other hand, rightfully points to the district's desire that the retirees stay out of school issues altogether.

"They keep telling us they don't want us on the school board," he says. "All they want us to do is pay our taxes and keep our mouths shut. That's all Del Webb wants us to do. On the other hand, with the application of democracy, we got three members on the board. They don't like that. But the point is, if we stay in the district, we stay on the school board. If they let us out, then we're not on the school board anymore and they can do what they want."

From there the battle gets dogmatic and emotional.
"I think it's more of a belief than an emotional thing," says Pam Justice, the other holdover Dysart school board member. "I think people believe across these United States that it's everybody's responsibility to educate kids and nobody should be able to vote themselves out of that tax responsibility. I think that's the issue. It gets emotional because it is an American belief system."

Mitch Eickmann recalls that when he took office on the Dysart school board in January 1994, the meetings already buzzed with the paranoia among certain factions of the senior community that the district was somehow hiding funds.

Eickmann sports a beard and an earring, and he speaks with the gentle manner of a pastor, which he is. He ministers to a Spanish-language congregation called Pan de vida, which means "bread of life," a reference to the metaphor and sacrament of Communion. Though he is Anglo, his wife is Hispanic, as is his parish, and in effect, he was elected as a stealth candidate.

No minority has been elected to the board since 1992, he points out, and when he ran, a Hispanic candidate posted a vigorous campaign while Eickmann did next to nothing. Then, as he relates, "when the final vote came out, I was the second-highest vote getter. Both Pam [Justice] and I scored very high in the new areas and the retired areas."

He assumes that was because they both had Anglo names.
Eickmann was board president through a series of failed bond and override elections.

School funding is broken into capital and M&O, which means "maintenance and operations," and the two budgets cannot easily be mixed. Capital, the money to build and repair schools, comes from borrowing money through bonds sold against the assessed valuation of home and business property in the district and then paid back by imposing property taxes on home and business owners. This is the system that the Arizona state Supreme Court has judged unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to rethink.

M&O is the money that runs an annual budget, paying salaries and costs of operating a school district. It is doled out by the state according to a per-pupil formula. The more students a district has, the more M&O money it gets. And if the district feels it needs more, it can ask the voters in the district for a budget override, also paid back through property taxes.

Between 1995 and 1997, four bonds and/or override elections failed in Dysart, the first of them a $25 million bond and a $1.5 million override in March 1995.

"Immediately, they blamed it on the seniors, because the bond issue didn't pass," recalls Bill Nelson, a retired businessman whose wife Eleanor would later be elected to the board. "I didn't vote. I didn't care." But he was miffed at being blamed. "We began to look at what's going on here," he says.

The Supreme Court had already ruled against the state's practice of relying entirely on bonding to fund school construction, so it would have been unwise to pass a bond before knowing the outcome of the state's revised building funding plan. The seniors had good enough business sense to realize that.

"We'd be paying through the nose for the next 12 or 15 years," Bill Nelson continues. "And maybe next month the Legislature was going to get off its butt and have different funding to satisfy the mandate of our state's Supreme Court."

A month later, Citizens for Tax Equity took shape. The district met with the group and asked if it'd approve a lesser bond, in the amount of $10 million, and then instead, in May 1995, put another $25 million bond up for election, which also failed.

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