A month into his official tenure as Northern Arizona’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics, Mike Marlow is checking items off of his to-do list while plenty of work still remains.
Rolling through more than 200 meetings with coaches, staff, student workers in the athletic department as well many others around the campus, Marlow said he spent his first six weeks in Flagstaff gathering as much information as possible.
“It’s a very welcoming community, which has been awesome,” said Marlow, who was hired away from Washington State to replace Lisa Campos in December. “It is a campus that wants to collaborate with athletics and expects athletics to collaborate with them. We are full of people that want to succeed across the board.”
However, in the past two weeks Marlow has found his department receiving pushback as it pursues the university’s first-ever fee dedicated solely to supporting the athletics department to the tune of $3.1 million annually. Hoping to charge each full-time student on the Flagstaff Mountain Campus a $75 per semester fee, Marlow and Northern Arizona’s athletics department have held a series of open forums.
Beginning with the first forum on Feb. 12, and culminating in a pair on Wednesday, students have presented concerns about adding $150 to mandatory fees that already total more than $1,000 a year for a full-time student. And the increase to the annual Athletics budget would be nearly 17 percent.
Wednesday’s forum included a few students pointing out Northern Arizona’s promise not to raise tuition during a four-year stretch is a bit of false advertising if fees can be added at the discretion of the Arizona Board of Regents, who must give the final blessing to the plan.
Another worried the ABOR would simply ignore student concerns, given the recent precedent of athletic fee approvals for Arizona State in the Fall of 2014 and Arizona this past fall. A state audit released in January found Arizona State misusing nearly a half- million dollars on recruitment travel costs, with ABOR and the university countering that it was acceptable in the agreement with the Associated Students of Arizona State University as it was not used in the recruitment or contracts of coaches.
ABOR is also currently involved with a lawsuit brought by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich claiming the regents are violating a constitutional provision that “instruction be as nearly free as possible.”
Brnovich cited the current tuition and mandatory fees have risen exponentially in recent years as state aid has plummeted, with NAU’s total cost to attend the Mountain Campus 325 percent higher now than it was in the 2002-03 academic year.
In a less eloquent way, another student at Wednesday’s forum suggested Northern Arizona’s best avenue to generating more funding was to simply be better at basketball and actually win a playoff football game.
Marlow, as well as associate athletic director Matt Howdeshell and Jane Kuhn, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, noted that all other Big Sky Conference universities have a similar fee in order to stay competitive.
“We are certainly sensitive to the rising costs of college scholarships and the cost of an intercollegiate athletic program, but there are certain basic things we have to provide,” Marlow said. “The NCAA tells us what those things that we can provide are, so we have to play within this game as well as we can.”
The university's administrators elected to hold off on providing a specific list of projects the fee’s projected annual total of $3.1 million would fund. Instead, the plan description included the desire to create an advisory committee of students, athletic administrators and ASNAU members to discuss recommendations to the president.
However, the possible additions or repairs included fixing a leak in the Walkup Skydome roof, putting all-weather turf on one of the practice fields across San Francisco Street from the Skydome and building a performance center to house a multitude of services for students and athletics.
“There's two things we are trying to communicate. One, we have basketball teams practicing on a floor with garbage buckets on them catching raindrops. That’s a problem,” Marlow said of the Skydome, with an additional concern being the men’s and women’s programs sharing a locker room in the Rolle Activity Center. “And then we are also trying to be creative finding opportunities for the general student body.”
When asked what the plan was to fund maintenance repairs such as the Skydome’s roof, Howdeshell and Kuhn said it would remain on the deferred maintenance list until deemed absolutely necessary. Indirectly, the athletics fee could open up space in the maintenance budget for academic buildings as opposed to being split with athletic needs. Kuhn mentioned the work being done to the fieldhouse in the middle of campus as another active project that could potentially benefit from the fee.
Some students also inquired why NAU Athletics can’t simply sustain themselves as Arizona and Arizona State do, with Kuhn answering their larger metropolitan areas provide a larger fan base, as well as their presence in the Pac-12 Conference allowing for additional funding via television contracts and the rest of the benefits of being a major Division-I program.
Sitting at $17,259,000 for 2017, including money for personnel, scholarships, operations and administration, the athletics department budget has risen nearly a million dollars since its $16,238,000 total in 2015. Well below the budgets of the other two public schools in the state, Northern Arizona also has yet to benefit from an athletics fee. Arizona’s fee comes in at $50 per semester, with students still forced to pay for men’s basketball and football tickets. Arizona State’s $75 per semester fee matches that of Northern Arizona’s proposal.
Currently the ASNAU and student activity fee of $48 per semester provides free attendance to athletic events, but also covers a wide array of other services such as student legal aid, funding for student organizations, campus speakers, activities and performances.
Marlow said he did his homework ahead of his hiring at Northern Arizona, but he had no idea the school was the only one in the state and Big Sky Conference without a dedicated athletics specific fee.
“You know what they say about assuming,” Marlow said. “Well I assumed, given Arizona, a program with a $90-plus million budget, was just putting theirs through, well of course NAU has it. I knew the Big Sky schools in the area of the country where I am from had it, so why wouldn't NAU have it? So, yeah, that did catch me by surprise.”
Venturing out of state and to Northern Arizona’s direct athletic competition, the presentation to the students included a breakdown of other Big Sky Conference schools and their similar fees. Among the semester-based schools in the conference, Montana charges students $71 and Montana State a little higher at $78.75. On the higher end, Southern Utah ($103), Idaho State ($119.02), Sacramento State ($141) and Idaho (167.29) were cited as being much more costly to students.
“The reality is our competition right now is out having voluntary workouts, skeleton drills, etc. Where are our players doing that with convenient access to the locker room and training room?’ Marlow said. “If we were to put an artificial turf on one of our practice fields, that benefits football, soccer and other student-athletes who want to get some work done outdoors. That would also benefit the student body for recreational space or intramurals.”
Plans to pursue the fee predated Marlow’s arrival, but he acknowledged he has done everything he can to assist moving it along in his short tenure.
Officials have proposed to cap the fee at $75 a semester until 2026 and keep athletic event attendance free through the date, when it would then be up for review. In response to what would be done with any portion of the $3.1 million left unspent each year, the athletics department said it would be left to the advisory council on how much could or should be saved annually to look ahead for future maintenance costs of new projects.
Kuhn used the current artificial turf at the South Recreation Fields as an example of planning ahead with fee money. The lifespan of the field was expected to be 10 years, meaning the turf would need to be replaced soon and student activity fee money has been saved to do so.
Hoping to make the fee worthwhile for its student base not interested in the success or performance of the university’s athletic teams, the athletics department hoped to brainstorm ideas with the proposed advisory council on how to serve a wide range of students.
“It expands options and opportunities for everybody. Just for example a performance center, there could be unique things done at NAU from a learning perspective so all of the sudden our kinesiology students could have, for lack of a better description, an additional laboratory,” Marlow said.
Going beyond just additional classroom space for degrees that could be expanded, Marlow said the athletics department wanted to expand opportunities in many fields.
“We have got to find avenues for the general student body to gain experience here,” Marlow said, citing the graduate assistantships and internships Athletics provides in its marketing and communications offices, among others. “It’s a small town and there's limited opportunities for our students to gain experience and get some jobs.”
In agreement with ASNAU, the fee money could not be used for full-time positions or contracts in Athletics, preventing it from directly upping annual salaries of its coaches as a result of the additional money.
The university will also eventually need to add facilities, as the school is in need of additional women’s scholarships to comply with Title IX. Marlow declined to speculate on what sport could eventually be added to Northern Arizona, with additional scholarships to existing sports impossible to add due to NCAA rules. Previous preliminary plans for the development around the university included either softball fields or beach volleyball courts.
“It is a big deal, because our opportunity balance is out of whack. We do need to address opportunities available to young women,” Marlow said. “Now what those opportunities will be is something we need to understand the interest level on campus and the conference alignment. At the end of the day too, we want to win. We don't want to have a sport that we don't think we can win in and win big.”
If you were counting on your bigger house to increase in value faster than average as the housing market recovered, you’re going to be disappointed.
The latest Flagstaff-area residential valuations are out, and they show that neighborhoods with properties priced below $300,000 – including townhomes and condos – are appreciating in value the fastest.
“You’re starting off at a lower price, so that’s where prices are being bid up the fastest,” said Jim Snook, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker Dallas Real Estate in Flagstaff.
But Snook also noted that everything else being equal – mainly home size and the age and condition of the structure – location in Flagstaff continues to play a big role. When the Daily Sun asked him to compare sales prices for similar three-bedroom, two-bath homes in five different neighborhoods, the price range came back between $265,000 and $357,500.
On the other hand, larger houses in neighborhoods with home values above $500,000 are retaining their value. But with fewer sales and lower demand, values are increasing more slowly.
And for the entire Flagstaff market, the median home value (excluding mobile) was up 7.3 percent to $285,026, the second straight year of single-digit growth after two years in double digits. And since the bottom of the Flagstaff market in 2012-13, median residential values have increased 58 percent, which is in line with all but the country’s hottest housing markets.
But unlike home sales tracked by local Realtors that are reported immediately, the Coconino County Assessor’s Office has a lag time of several years from the time that sales are first reported to the mailing of individual valuations this month. This year, for example, the valuations were based on comparable sales between January 2016 and June 2017. And the values won’t be used in tax bills until the mailings that go out in the fall of 2019, points out County Assessor Armando Ruiz.
This year, Plaza Vieja in south Flagstaff showed an 18 percent growth in value to $193,000 and 46 percent growth since 2013. Other lower-priced neighborhoods with double-digit growth included Smokerise and Christmas Tree Estates, and unincorporated Mountainaire, Heckethorn, Mountain Dell, Cosnino and Winona.
Then there is what the Snook calls the “downtown” effect: Homes near Flagstaff’s core are going at a premium, with Cherry Hill and Flagstaff Townsite values up by double digits this year.
Ruiz says his office groups properties not only by neighborhood but by housing type, such as townhomes, so that values are more easily compared. Thus University Heights and its single-family detached homes are listed separately from the townhomes in University Meadows, which are listed with Elden Townhomes.
Ruiz said that median values within neighborhoods are more accurate – half of the prices are higher, half are lower. An average, on the other hand, can be skewed in a small sample if one or two properties sell at very high prices.
Snook’s sample also used median prices for the past year of sales in five neighborhoods: Kachina Village, Greenlaw, Foxglenn, Cheshire and Ponderosa Trails. The first four had three-bedroom, two-bath houses that ranged between 1,300 and 1,500 square feet, with the smaller homes showing the bigger price differential – from $265,000 to $330,750. Only Ponderosa Trails lacked homes below 1,500 square feet (1 out of 28), so its median overall price came in higher at $394,450.
Ruiz noted that with 75,000 properties in the county, his office does a mass appraisal using comparable sales that still tries to account through building permits for changes in individual homes, such as a new second story or other major renovations. Owners have until March 30 to file an appeal petition if they think their valuation should be changed, and they can do so either in person or through the mail.
“We strive to provide accurate and equitable values and we welcome the chance to discuss your property further,” Ruiz said.
For more information and to download an appeal petition, visit www.coconino.az.gov/assessor
Two months into the legislative session, Sen. Sylvia Allen has put herself in the spotlight for a bill that would freeze the minimum wage increase Arizona voters approved in 2016 at $10.50, take away an earned sick leave provision and prohibit local governments from setting their own minimum wages.
Allen, a Republican from Snowflake who represents Legislative District 6, which includes Flagstaff, said the raise to $12 by 2020 would hurt small businesses, which don’t have the profit margins to afford paying their employees more and forces business owners to give employees raises they haven’t earned.
Backers contend that voters approved the measure 58 percent to 42 percent and point to higher-than-average growth in Arizona’s leisure and hospitality sector despite the $2 initial hike in 2017-- the area likely to be most impacted by the statewide pay increases.
(In Flagstaff, where voters passed a municipal minimum wage hike that has since been amended to reach $15.50 by 2022, a second ballot measure in November seeks to return the minimum to the state wage, plus 50 cents an hour.)
But the bulk of the bills sponsored by Allen have to do with a different sector of the state: Arizona’s schools.
One bill would set a minimum of two recess periods per day for Arizona’s elementary schoolers. Another would give state legislators more oversight over federal dollars directed to schools. And another would require schools to tell voters how much federal, state and local funding they already receive when they go out for budget overrides or bond measures.
Here are five of the education bills Allen has sponsored, along with feedback from Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca.
SB 1083: Requires school districts and charter schools to provide at least two recess periods for kindergarten through fifth graders and at least one recess period for students in half-day kindergarten programs. Allen said she doesn’t like government mandates but she has been approached repeatedly by parents from districts that don’t offer two recesses for elementary schoolers. Studies show that recess benefits student learning and behavior, she said.
In an email, Penca wrote that from his perspective, a decision on recess schedules should be up to educators in local districts. Most schools in Arizona, including FUSD’s K-5 schools, already offer two recesses per day, he wrote.
SB 1152: Permits the Legislature to specify the use of federal money like block grants or general revenue-sharing funding that is allocated to the Arizona Department of Education. The bill would give legislators a needed increase in oversight over money flowing into the department, Allen said. She pointed out problems with school districts misallocating Title I funding as one reason for the bill.
“We should have the ability to see what that money is and what it is being spent for,” Allen said. “In some cases if the Legislature felt it would be good, we would have the ability to appropriate that money.”
She said she’d like more legislative oversight over federal money going to other agencies as well, including the Arizona Department of Transportation.
It appears Allen’s legislation would put in place procedures for distribution of federal funds that are similar to those implemented by a majority of other states, Penca wrote. He said he supports a process that would ensure federal dollars are distributed efficiently and accurately to schools and agencies.
SB 1378: Requires school districts to publicize to voters the total amount of federal, state and local revenues they receive per pupil when they are going for a budget override or bond election. Voters hear all the time that the state doesn’t put enough funding into education so this bill would put things into context by forcing transparency about local and federal funding sources, Allen said.
But that information, about how many local, state and federal dollars school districts receive, is already reported and available, Penca wrote. Instead, including information about something like federal funding may not be relevant and may instead distract voters in a local election from what they need to be evaluating the needs of the district and implications for local taxes, he wrote.
SB 1254: Appropriates $150,000 to conduct a special audit and cost study of school district special education programs. Legislators have known for years that within the special education program, “not enough money is going to certain services and too much money is going to services that aren't needed,” Allen said. An audit is the first step to reforming the system, she said.
Penca wrote that he supports a study of the identified disability categories and the establishment of realistic costs to administer the state and federally mandated programs. Findings from a similar study in 2006 were never implemented, though, so Penca wrote that he hopes another study would be followed by action.
SB 1411: Adds an educational dashboard to schools’ annual achievement profiles. The dashboard applies the A-F letter grade system to each performance indicator of a school’s achievement profile and assigns an overall letter grade to the school. The dashboard model would help parents compare schools on a range of measures, from graduation rates to sports opportunities to career and technical education offerings, Allen said.