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.

Then logic disappeared altogether. After two consecutive $25 million issues were deemed too expensive by the electorate, the board came back, in March 1996, with a new bond issue for $55 million.

The seniors were outraged and voted it down, as well. And when word spread that the seniors were voting down tax increases smaller than their annual greens fees at Sun City golf courses, even the meeker of Sun City Westers began to take umbrage and take sides.

"They're trying to make patsies of us," fumes Bill Nelson. "They're blaming us because it didn't pass, even though their people didn't get out to vote and they outnumber us four or five to one, and blaming us and calling us racists and saying we're harassing Hispanics, and all these nasty mean things. Now if you were in my shoes, would it make sense to vote for a bond issue with all this going on and with the possibility that there's going to be new financing?"

Still, the schools were increasingly in need.
"We have some big capital needs in terms of repairs at the existing schools," says Mitch Eickmann. "But there was also anticipating the growth we have in the district, anticipating at least a new elementary school."

"I definitely hold the state of Arizona responsible for some of the school-finance issues that affect the district," says superintendent Jesus de la Garza. "But it's an issue across the state. I also hold the Citizens for Tax Equity responsible for keeping us from accessing the only monies that are available through the two major avenues that we have, and that's to bond or have a budget override election."

Some perspective: Bonds may soon be moot; overrides likely will not. Last November, the Dysart district commissioned a report from the bonding firm of Peacock, Hislop, Staley & Given to show just how much those bonds and overrides would cost taxpayers, with and without deannexation.

Assuming a very conservative growth rate in assessed valuation of 10 percent per year, a $1.5 million override would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $78.72 per year. But even if the deannexation were to go through, the same override would cost the same homeowner $127.10 per year.

If the deannexation were to go through, the amount of money that the district would be able to get through bonds would drop by current PHS&G estimates from $28 million to about $12 million. But at that 10 percent growth rate, with all the new houses anticipated in Surprise and the surrounding area, the district would still be able to afford a $20 million bond within two years, and, under the current funding system, would be able to put it out to vote this September.

Still, a $20 million bond would have cost the Sun City Westers about $61 a year on that $100,000 house. A bond and an override together would cost the homeowner a total of $139.40 per year in property taxes.

Koch demanded that the PHS&G consultant recalculate based on a 20 percent growth rate, and the amounts became even more negligible: $86 a year for bond and override together.

Whether or not the Legislature refigures school finance, these are the dollar amounts per taxpayer that have hamstrung the Dysart district.

"Since [the last bond failed] the strategy has been to say the district administration had been incompetent," Eickmann continues. "'There's plenty of money,' they say, 'they just don't know how to manage it.' The whole issue became focused on 'If we get more taxes than them, this is unjust.' But instead of addressing the Legislature, which is responsible for this tax system, the attack has always been on the school district, because it's very difficult to move the Legislature, but it's very easy to vote down everything in a school district."

It's also very democratic. The remaining, largely Hispanic Dysart community did not get out the vote.

"We have been trying very hard to get minorities to vote," says teacher Buster Estrada.

Though Surprise Mayor Joan Shaefer and city manager Dick McComb have been vocal about the schools problems, their counterparts in El Mirage have stayed away. El Mirage Mayor Maggie Reese did not return calls from New Times.

"I've been doing this for three and a half years," says Jacque Carrillo, a Dysart school district employee from El Mirage who has four children in Dysart schools. "I am more than tired of going to people's houses and explaining the situation to them. And I don't understand why they don't go out and vote. I don't know if they don't realize how much education is important to their children."

Anticipating the next attack, the school board circled the wagons and, with approval from the U.S. Justice Department, devised a ward system of representation that would ensure that members of all the various communities inside the Dysart district would have a voice. The seniors took them to court within the Arizona state court system and, at the end of March 1997, had the ward system ruled unconstitutional.

"It was legal," says Pam Justice, "and we went through a nine-month, $30,000 process to set it up through the United States Department of Justice. We got preclearance from the Department of Justice, but a paragraph within the state statute was found unconstitutional."

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