Longform

Sun City Disease

Page 6 of 9

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."

That "illegal" ward system has since become an issue for Justice's recall.
In May 1997, the district tried to pass another override and again failed. The administration then announced that it would need to make severe program cuts in the amount of $800,000. They scrapped art and music programs, physical education, athletics (later restored through community donations), the gifted program, and slashed away at staff and clerical positions.

Those students who had the means responded by leaving the district.
"At one point in the '96-97 school year, we had 187 new students and 198 left us," says Pam Justice.

Most of the neighboring districts do not keep statistics of where their open-enrollment students come from. The Peoria district does, however, and it currently has 149 children in its schools who live within the Dysart boundaries, which represents about $600,000 worth of state funds lost to the district.

With the ward system gone, the seniors swept the November elections. Fewer than 3,000 voters turned out at the polls. Of the incumbents, Dick McComb did not run, and Mary Johnson, an African American, and Rachel Villanueva, a Hispanic, lost their seats.

(Ironically, last week's board meeting agenda carried an item to investigate ways to assure minority representation on the board.)

Rumors of racism had been circulating. Dr. Jesus de la Garza, the district superintendent, received an anonymous letter that in cloying rhyme explained how illegals take advantage of welfare and other benefits.

But it was a stretch to say that the newly elected board members were either racist or lacking the experience needed to be school board members.

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Michael Kiefer