Longform

The High Cost of Education Reform

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And some had used creative financing to exceed the limit.
The Kyrene Elementary School District has one of the fastest-growing student populations in recent history, thanks to an explosion of development around South Mountain in Phoenix. The district grew by nearly 5,000 students from 1990 to 1994.

Because the state funds school districts according to the number of students who attended the previous year, the district's budget couldn't keep up with the flood of kids. (Critics also have accused Kyrene, comprised largely of upper-income families, of overspending to build elaborate schools.)

In any event, the district issued bonds through a complicated financing scheme. Kyrene is one of 22 school districts in the state that used the borrowing mechanism--known as Capital Appreciation Bonds--to exceed legal debt limits.

Through a variety of bonding measures, Kyrene has borrowed an amount equal to about 30 percent of the assessed property value of the district--or twice the legal debt limit.

In October, a taxpayer lawsuit effectively halted this form of borrowing for Kyrene and 21 other districts.

It is projected that the Kyrene district needs to build two more schools within five years to handle the unabated growth. If taxpayers win their lawsuit, the district will have nowhere to turn for funds to build those schools.

The Picacho Elementary School sits, literally, next to the railroad tracks in the desert of Pinal County, near Picacho Peak.

Its students come from poor families that make their homes in run-down houses, trailers, motels, buses. They make their living any way they can, primarily in migrant labor.

The roof over the school cafeteria is rotted and sagging. One of the two buses that bring Picacho children to school was pulled off the street recently because it was unsafe; students wait a little longer each day for the remaining bus and hope it doesn't break down.

At school, the students are greeted by exposed electrical wires, open-flame heaters and buildings that date to the 1930s.

Picacho is not alone.
There are 400 school buildings in Arizona with "emergency life and safety needs," according to a private study commissioned by the Legislature.

"The needs of these schools may require some legislative assistance during the 1995 regular session," Governor Symington said in a September 1994 press release.

The assistance never came.
A year later, Symington said, "I intend to work with the legislative leadership during the next month to see whether we can come up with a solution to immediate problems right now."

That solution hasn't come, either.
In theory, public education is the great equalizer, the one institution that gives everyone the same chance to succeed, regardless of where or to whom he was born.

But the shameful inequality of schools in Arizona has been a festering sore for more than a decade. The disparity grows as state policies force school districts to rely, more and more, on their local property-tax bases.

It is a matter of mathematics: Districts that have low property values must set high tax rates to collect even a minimal level of revenue for their schools. Richer districts can have low taxes, and still fund more than adequate educational systems.

Last year, the Arizona Supreme Court decided that this disparity in educational funding violated the state constitution. Yet the gap between the haves and the have-nots remains unbridged.

More than 10,500 children attend school in the Roosevelt Elementary School District in South Phoenix. Ninety percent of them live at or below the poverty level.

Statistics show that those children start school behind their peers across the Valley. More than 3,500 of them come from families that don't speak English. Only 17 percent have access to a computer--either at home or at school.

"Our children don't have access to programs like other kids in this state do," says Roosevelt Superintendent John Baracy. "Neither do our teachers. They don't have current materials or current equipment.

"It affects our ability to attract quality teachers, and it affects the ability of our children to compete."

The district can't raise additional money on its own. It is tangled in the Catch-22 that haunts education in most poor areas in Arizona: Low property values mean high taxes. The tax rate is already at the state maximum.

There is no room in the Roosevelt budget to buy computers, let alone to wire its classrooms for them. And the district can't finance such improvements with bonds, because Roosevelt is too close to its debt limit.

Roosevelt's population will likely swell by another 800 students in the next three years alone; the district must use its remaining bonding authority to build at least one more school soon.

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Lisa Davis