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Dollars for the District?

Supporters of Proposition 403 want voters to forget about TUSD's past problems and instead look to the future

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Ann-Eve Pedersen doesn't have to look at the figures that show Arizona ranks 49th in per-pupil spending on education; she gets to see it firsthand in her son Lars' classroom at Sam Hughes Elementary School.

Last year, his first-grade class had 17 students. This year, his second-grade class has 26 kids, after the Tucson Unified School District scaled back class-size-reduction efforts to save money.

Pedersen, a product of TUSD herself, says she volunteers in her son's class regularly, and often notices that some students need extra help, but can't get it because of the larger class size.

"We now understand that smaller class sizes are directly linked to eliminating poverty. If class sizes are reduced at this age, you have higher rates of high school graduation. This can have an effect just from making that investment in the front end," Pedersen says.

Pedersen and other volunteers have been walking TUSD neighborhoods the past two months to get the word out about a TUSD budget override on the Nov. 4 ballot, asking Tucson taxpayers to give the district up to $28 million each year for the next seven years to pay for lower class sizes, arts and incentive pay for hard-to-fill positions.

Supporters say Proposition 403 is also an opportunity to put some much-needed dollars where the Arizona Legislature refuses to--in our schools. The time has come, they say, for TUSD families to do it themselves.

But like any tax initiative in Tucson, school-district overrides do not have a successful history, even though 80 percent of Arizona school districts use overrides as a means to supplement their funding. The last time voters had an opportunity to support a school-district override was in 2004; at the same time, TUSD also asked voters to approve a $235 million bond package to pay for new facilities. The bond passed, while the override failed.

District observers said the bonds passed because voters knew exactly where those bond dollars were going, while the override would have just thrown more dollars into the troubled TUSD financial fire.

Four years later, the economic crisis may make it difficult to convince voters to pay an extra $128 per year (based on the average Tucson home value of $178,000). The timing of the override also comes just months after former Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer's controversial school-closure proposal and the announcement that TUSD faced a $20 million deficit. (This year's override proposal has so far faced no significant organized opposition, although there are signs that could change during the election season's final month.)

But Pedersen chooses to look at the override differently, especially in light of a newly created TUSD finance department that was able to cut down that $20 million deficit before the 2008-2009 school year. She's also convinced that this is the best time in TUSD's history to approve an override because of the arrival of new Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen.

"There's something different happening with TUSD right now under her leadership," Pedersen says. "TUSD has had some perception issues, but right now, we have a new superintendent, a new finance team and a new citizens' audit committee. This is already a different district."

Celania-Fagen's arrival, however, isn't the only reason this override is different than what was given to voters in 2004. Pedersen says the district and its supporters learned a lot from the 2004 bond initiative.

This override, like the bond, would have an oversight committee, and like the bond, the override will focus on specific areas. Half the funds would go toward capping kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade classes at 18 students, and toward capping middle school math classes at 22 students. The other half of the override would fund incentive pay to recruit hard-to-fill positions, like math, science and special-education teachers, as well as occupational therapists and speech therapists used by special-needs students; and would pay to bring the Opening Minds Through the Arts program to all TUSD elementary and middle schools. (The program currently serves 41 schools, but would increase to 71 schools.)

Three months into her job as the new superintendent, Celania-Fagen says she is aware of the challenges facing TUSD, but her optimism remains high. (While Celania-Fagen agreed to talk to the Weekly about her vision for the district, she is legally prevented from campaigning or speaking in support of the override.)

When Celania-Fagen left her job as associate superintendent for Des Moines Public Schools, she seemed to be heading into one big mess. TUSD's governing board was split, and proposed school closures had parents threatening to take their kids out of the district. Throw in that projected $20 million deficit, declining student enrollment and growing distrust, and it seemed like TUSD was in serious trouble.

Today, Celania-Fagen says she feels lucky that before she arrived, TUSD's new finance department was able to cover the $20 million deficit, do external auditing and implement zero-based budgeting (steps for which her predecessor, Pfeuffer, deserves credit). This same time last year, the district had a hiring freeze, while this year, the district is able to hire.

"Yes, I came into what was pretty much a crisis," Celania-Fagen says. But Celania-Fagen says she refused to act like she was in the middle of a crisis. It had already been determined that school closures wouldn't produce any significant savings in the long run, so she's putting school-closure discussions on hold for at least two years to see how her school-choice program works, and to give schools a chance to find ways to increase enrollment.

Celania-Fagen's school-choice policy allows parents to pick what school they want their child to attend, as long as there is room at the school they've selected.

The next step is for schools to determine what to offer in order to set them apart, whether that's a traditional learning curriculum, or the use of the Montessori method, or offering students more access to computers and technology.

"If our schools don't increase enrollment, then we will have to have a discussion and decide what trade-offs we're willing to have as a community," Celania-Fagen says.

TUSD enrollment is down another 1,400 students this year. The downturn in home construction, coupled with immigration-related crackdowns, forced TUSD to recognize that enrollment would possibly decrease. Celania-Fagen says the budget was written to anticipate a significant decrease.

"It wasn't a surprise," Celania-Fagen says. "This year, we were prepared."

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