Our View: Cities, schools need voters’ support on Tuesday

When East Valley voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will decide whether to support a number of city and school district bond issues and budget overrides.

Mesa voters will be asked to support two bond issues: a $70 million city bond to mostly improve aging parks and convert former school sites into parks, and a $230 million Mesa Unified School District bond to repair aging buildings, address transportation issues and improve technology in classrooms.

Mesa’s public schools are in dire need of repairs and improved technology. So we urge you to vote for the school district’s bond issue, which will generate the money necessary to upgrade classroom technology that is outdated. This is especially important as our public schools work toward meeting Common Core standards and preparing kids for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. District officials and the Mesa school board gave careful consideration to prioritizing needs before deciding to put a bond issue before voters that will cover the most pressing issues the schools are facing. This bond issue is for necessities — not amenities — and voters should support it.

We are concerned, however, about whether Mesa voters will support both the school district bond and the city bond at the same time. Mesa’s parks do need improvements, but if voters feel they cannot afford both bond issues, we urge them to vote for the Mesa school district’s $230 million bond.

Voters in Tempe will also be seeing school and city bond issues on the same ballot. Like Mesa Unified, Tempe Union High School District has aging schools that need repairs, modifications and improvements. The district is asking voters to approve a $75 million bond — and we urge you to vote yes.

At the same time, the city of Tempe is asking voters to approve three bonds totaling $29.8 million. One bond, at $6.4 million, would allow the city to upgrade police and fire technology and purchase new vehicles, while another, at $12.9 million, would go toward city facilities and infrastructure. But it’s the third bond — $10.5 million mostly dedicated to replacing Tempe Town Lake’s downstream dam — that should be given highest priority. When the rubber dam burst in 2010 and the lake drained, it wasn’t just an eyesore. It was a safety concern, too, and replacing the dam with a permanent steel fixture is the right move all around. Tempe officials say they’re still seeking outside funding, too, and if they secure it, the money would go toward other Tempe park projects.

In addition to the bond issues in Mesa Unified and Tempe Union, most East Valley school districts are seeking budget override renewals or increases. School districts receive funding from the state based on enrollment. More money can come in the form of overrides, which are in place for seven years when voters agree to tax themselves to provide districts with additional funds.

Overrides were originally intended to provide extras that state funding doesn’t cover. But as the Tribune’s Michelle Reese recently reported, many districts now count on overrides for basic necessities because state funding hasn’t kept up with those needs or the cost of inflation. Chuck Essigs of the Association of School Business Officials told East Valley educators recently that the state has not funded around a billion dollars in capital funding alone over the last five years. Combined with other cuts, this has forced districts to use funds from their operations budgets to pay for roofs, plumbing and air-conditioning units, as well as to pay teacher salaries and benefits. So we ask voters to support their school districts’ requests for budget overrides and renewals.

These overrides will be especially critical if Proposition 204 fails to pass. This ballot measure — which we are urging voters to support — would keep the state sales tax at 6.6 percent with most of the funds from a permanent 1-cent surcharge going to Arizona’s public schools. If it fails, the sales tax drops back to 5.6 percent. A Prop 204 failure means control over state funding for Arizona’s public schools will continue to be decided by partisan politics in the Legislature that has resulted in Arizona being ranked 48th in state funding.

While most of the attention in this year’s general election is focused on the Obama-Romney battle for president and key Congressional races, these very local ballot decisions are important too. We hope East Valley voters will give them the same amount of thought, and support those that are most important: Bond issues for Mesa Unified and Tempe Union school districts, the city of Tempe bond to replace the dam at Tempe Town Lake, budget overrides and renewals in all of our school districts, and Proposition 204.

Photo: Tempe Streets crew workers use heavy machinery, Wednesday, July 28, 2010, to clean up while leveling out the bottom of Tempe Town Lake after the rubber dam on the lakes west end burst.