Candidates for Gilbert school board divided Wednesday into two camps: one in favor of a budget override on November’s ballot and one against.
Seven people are seeking one of four spots on the Gilbert Unified School District governing board in the November election. Six of them attended a candidate forum during a parent council. One, Eric Johnson, missed the event due to health reasons.
Jill Humphreys and Johnson are vying for one two-year spot. Incumbents EJ Anderson, Blake Sacha and Lily Tram are hoping to keep their seats against Julie Smith and Daryl Colvin.
Colvin, a business owner, and Smith, a trained dietician who is currently a stay-at-home mom, often referred to one another and their similar beliefs — that the district needs more efficiencies and not more money. Both oppose the override renewal.
But the other candidates in attendance declared the budget override renewal on the Nov. 6 ballot essential to district operations.
Arizona school districts are given funds from the state based on enrollment. Districts have the ability to ask voters to tax themselves for additional funds — currently up to 15 percent more. Most school districts in the East Valley have such an override already in place and every five years it must be renewed.
Gilbert’s current override provides 10 percent — or about $17 million — to the district each year above its state allocation. The renewal on the ballot asks for continuation of the same 10 percent in order to maintain class size, key programs and salaries for teachers.
While all the candidates touted the need for Gilbert to remain competitive — pointing out a desire to expand schools parents can self-select like the Gilbert Classical Academy and Neely Traditional Academy — they did not agree on the need for the additional $17 million each year.
“Maybe two years from now bring it back and consider it; but for those of you who insist on passing it, you better get myself and Julie Smith in there to watch the money,” Colvin said.
Colvin likened it to a “marketing model.” The district keeps what funding it does have away from teachers who then have to ask for supplies like paper. Then they can point out a need for funding.
“The decision is made in advance (to seek the override renewal),” Colvin said.
Smith questioned the need for the override when the district ended last school year with more than $33 million in unspent funds after paying its annual debt service.
The district’s assistant superintendent of business services, Clyde Dangerfield, told the Tribune a majority of those funds are restricted for specific uses — extracurricular activities, donations to specific schools, and capital spending. Only about $10 million really was available for carryover into this year from last year, but all but $4.3 million is also tied to restrictions.
“That then is carried forward and built into next year’s budget,” he said. The capital funds can then be used for items like roof and parking lot repairs that the state stopped paying for through building renewal funds.
Anderson, current board president, pointed out that the district has the lowest administrative cost per pupil in the state, citing an Auditor General report. The override funds, she said, are necessary to make an impact on student academics.
“If we want to maintain class size, if we want to keep music and art in the classroom, if we want to have the best district in the state and keep the quality we need and want in this city, we need to pass the override,” she said.
Many of the candidates said they would like to see more done for gifted students in the district. That is an area highlighted during recent strategic planning meetings. A one point, there was discussion about opening a self-contained — or gifted only — classroom in the district. But that plan was put on hold because of funds.
“I really would like to see more done for our gifted students. I would like to see a self-contained class, if not a school,” Smith said.
Humphreys said one reason she’s seeking election is to improve the “achievement gap,” particularly for boys.
“I would like to see more innovation helping young men to be as academically successful as women,” she said.
Looking at the school budget again, Sacha — who was appointed to the governing board in May to fill a vacancy — said he wants to raise the amount of funding that goes into the classroom to a minimum of 65 percent and create more business and community partnerships. He also wants to see the state “level the playing field” in the area of full-day kindergarten.
The state currently funds only half-day kindergarten, which leaves school districts and charter schools in the position of finding the money in the budget to keep full day available. Gilbert currently does that, rather than require tuition from parents to pay for a full-day program.
Tram, a five-year member of the board, touted her experience as a board member to “maintain quality education with the challenge of budget cuts,” in recent years. She said she would continue supporting full funding of full-day kindergarten.
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