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Checking in With Mike Penca

Mike Penca stands inside his office at the Flagstaff Unified School District offices on Sparrow Avenue.

Voters will see two Flagstaff Unified School District related propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot that if passed would provide the district with continued and additional funding for the next five to six years.

Prop 423 is a bond measure that would allow FUSD to take out a $75 million loan to support the district's capital projects, and Prop 424 is an override that would extend the current FUSD property tax for the next seven years.

Prop 423

Flagstaff Unified School District Superintendent Mike Penca said FUSD would like to receive all of its funding for capital improvement projects, like roof replacements and building repairs, from federal and state entities.

“Ideally the federal and state funds we receive would meet our needs, and we’d only have to rely on bonds when we have big projects like building a new school,” he said. “But that’s not the case.”

In 2007, FUSD received $7 million in capital funding from the state. In 2017, however, FUSD received $600,000, a $6.4 million reduction during a 10-year period.

Before 2008, the funding provided by the state was enough to keep buildings maintained and suitable for students, and FUSD only asked for a bond when they needed to construct a new building entirely. But recently, the district finds itself needing bond money just to keep schools in an operational condition.

Penca said the state recognized its underfunding and promised to increase the capital funds amount to schools throughout Arizona over the next five years, adding that FUSD is expected to see a $1 million increase in this year's budget cycle.

“But we never know if that is actually going to happen,” he said. “And that will be $1.6 million we’ll get, not $7 million.”

Unfortunately, Penca said, the district has relied on bonds and overrides to meet its basic needs for a while.

In 2006, voters passed a $53.1 million bond, and in 2012, voters passed a $20.7 million bond.

With a gym floor replacement this year and a few upcoming roof replacement projects, the last of the $20.7 million will be gone within the next year or so, Penca said.

If Prop 423 passes, the district's $75 million would essentially be a loan made to the district to purchase capital items, and its main areas of focus for the funds would be facility improvement as well as maintenance, technology access for staff and students, and transportation and buses.

The $75 million would break down in the following way:

• $29.6 million toward the renovation of Mount Elden Middle school to meet current regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the replacement of one still to-be-determined school

• $22.3 million toward major maintenance to improve the health and safety of students to district school buildings

• $10.6 million to ensure technology access for all of the district’s students, which would increase the current one device for every two students to one device for every student.

• $7.3 million for bus replacement of those in the fleet that have more than 200,000 miles

• $3 million for repairs to aging buildings

• $2.2 million for athletic and recreation field replacements

Penca said the district’s newest school was built in 1987, making it 21 years old, but the majority of schools were built in the 1950s.

Last year the district authorized a facilities assessment on the 15 school buildings, and the report showed $94 million worth of necessary improvements to bring all buildings up to health, safety, security and ADA standards.

Penca said the buildings were all built to the codes and ADA requirements of the time they were constructed, which means they are not compliant with the current codes established in 2010 unless they were renovated.

As far as the school buses go, Penca said one-third of the fleet has more than 200,000 miles. With the longest transportation of a district student being 69 miles one-way each day, and with the district being 4,427 square miles, those miles rack up pretty quickly.

Penca said they’ve been replacing two to three buses a year but would like to start replacing about seven every year to make sure the vehicles are a safe as possible.

Prop 424

If passed, Prop 424 would be a continuation of the current FUSD property tax.

Penca said the tax would last for seven years, with the first four generating $8.5 million per year. Then, for the next three years – year five, six, and seven – the tax would be phased out, and the revenue would be cut by $2.7 million per year, which would translate to the taxpayer.

This is the second override on this specific property tax, and the money generated goes into the operational budget, funding programs, staff and teachers.

The current override contributes to programs and services that are not fully funded by the state, Penca said.

Right now, FUSD receives $64 million per year for operational costs from the state, but Penca said that number isn’t enough to fund all of the programs that add value to the district's students.

The programs that are now funded by the most recent override and their associated costs include:

• $1,145,019 toward keeping class sizes below the state average by employing more teachers

• $104,250 for K-3 intervention programs

• $150,000 for athletics, fine and performing arts, and clubs

• $1,888,348 to maintain magnet, dual enrollment and enrichment programs

• $441,510 to fund art, music and PE in elementary schools

• $1,145,091 to provide full-day kindergarten

• $3,249,889 for special education and gifted programs

If passed, the override attached to Prop 424 would continue funding the same programs.

Penca said the Flagstaff community takes pride in the fact that its schools provide opportunities such as art, music and PE to all elementary students, as it's not required in Arizona and many schools don’t. The community also places importance on full-day kindergarten, he said, which the district is happy to provide.

There are 1,480 special education students in the district, and Penca said the district doesn’t receive enough funding from the state to ensure that their physical and educational needs are met, so the district has relied on the initial property tax and subsequent override to meet them.

Community impact

Because Prop 424 is a continuation, it only extends the tax of about $68 per $100,000 limited property value annually and doesn’t increase it.

If passed, Prop 423’s $75 million bond would take 20 years for taxpayers to pay off. It would add about $16 to the $41.94 per $100,000 of limited property value homeowners are already paying for the 2006 and 2012 bonds.

Penca said he is so thankful for the Flagstaff community and what it does for the district and its students. Routinely, he said, community members are in the classrooms helping out and lending expertise.

But, realistically, he said if these propositions don’t pass next month, the district is going to have some tough decisions to make as far as prioritizing its projects and funds and might have to look at reducing or cutting back some of its programs.

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