May 11, 2005 - More teachers, smaller classes and increased elective offerings may be heading to Amphitheater Public Schools if voters approve a 10 percent maintenance and operations budget override election to be held May 17, school officials say.

If approved, the override would be in place for seven years and would need to be reapproved by voters in 2012, or the district's budget would have to be reduced. The district would receive $6,801,507 on top of this year's budget of $79,973,068. The average district homeowner's property taxes would increase about $100 a year, said Scott Little, chief financial officer for the district.

For months, the override has been a hot-button issue for many within the district. An override has not been approved in the district since 1979. By law, district employees cannot use school resources or time to influence the outcome of an election, Little said. That leaves many district officials tight-lipped in reference to the override, only providing information about where the money would be spent.

However, Superintendent Vicki Balentine said the override process has been a long one, and until the day after the election, she will remain anxious.

The last time the district attempted a 10 percent maintenance and operations budget override was in 1994. Voters rejected it.

Balentine said she had "no idea" if this time the override would be successful.

Many school districts within Southern Arizona are operating under an override. Sahuarita, Tanque Verde, Catalina Foothills, Sunnyside and Flowing Wells school districts are just some that are operating under a maintenance and operations override.

The need for the increase comes from the revenue control limit, or budget limit, given annually to each school district. If the district believes the money is not enough, it can go to the voters and ask for no more than a 10 percent increase of the budget limit, Little said.

Due to fluctuating property values, it is hard to say how much the average homeowner within the district would end up paying annually if the override is approved, Little said. In information given to district residents, the average value of a home was assessed at $164,225, reflected in an annual estimated cost of about $99.59, or $8.30 monthly.

The override would be in effect for seven years, fading out in the last two years. The percentage requested would be set at 10 percent until 2010. In the following year, it would drop down to 6.66 percent, and in the last year of the override it would fall at 3.33 percent. At that time, the district would have to go to the voters for an override approval continuation, Little said.

Patrick Nelson, the district's associate superintendent, refused to speculate about what would happen to programs, teachers and pay raises paid for by the override if it were not renewed.

To come to the decision that an override was even necessary for Amphi, the 16-member Blue Ribbon Committee formed last May to study all aspects of the district, including education and finance, reform issues including No Child Left Behind, and classroom size. It also focused on areas in which cuts were already made, said Susan Zibrat, a committee co-chairwoman. It then brought its findings to the board. It was in favor of holding an override election.

For Diana Boros, district parent and member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, the override is a way to "put your money where your mouth is." Pointing out that the money is specifically delegated to areas within the district, she said it is all money well spent.

"The needs are so great," she said.

The district has delegated the override money to three main areas, Nelson said.

If the override is approved, the district wants to hire 44 full-time teachers in order to lower class sizes. Currently, classes are capped at about 29 students per class, however, classrooms with more students than that exist, Nelson said.

Various areas of the curriculum at the elementary, middle and high school levels would be enhanced. For example, art, music and physical education teachers would be added to the elementary level. At some schools, students are taking physical education classes for only 25 minutes a week, which is far too little, Nelson said, especially with the growing rates of childhood obesity in the country.

At the middle school level, a writing lab and a math lab would be opened at each school.

"Writing is key to communication," Nelson said. The math and writing lab would help prepare students for their course work in addition to preparing them for the AIMS test.

Science electives would also be increased to include such classes as astronomy, marine biology and engineering. Technology classes also would be enhanced, Nelson said. As it stands, students are receiving three weeks of technology training, he said, which is not enough for a "nation that depends on technology."

"Technology is a tool to support our core curriculum," he said.

The arts would also be expanded at every school in the areas of drama and dance, he said.

With the added classes and courses, that would yield 11 new teachers to the middle school, "allowing a wider curriculum of support," Nelson said.

At the high school level, an increase in advance placement offerings is being sought to allow students to take more college credit courses while still in high school, Nelson said. In addition, new classes would be offered, including astronomy, advanced French and studio art.

The override also would provide funds for an increase in vocational education for those students who may not want to go on to a four year college. There would be an emphasis on the rapidly growing health industry, through such classes as sports rehabilitation, medical imaging and radiology.

This year, only 25 students have internships, Nelson said. If the override passes, the district would look to increase that number to about 100 students.

Given all the class electives the district would like to add, it wants to hire 29 new full-time employees in addition to the 44 teachers who would be brought in to lower class sizes, Nelson said.

A focus on enhancing the pyramid of intervention also would come into play, given a successful override, Nelson said. With passing AIMS test scores being mandatory for graduation, some students may need increased tutoring and additional help with study skills to help them succeed in all areas, he said. The override money would go to providing year-round tutoring for those students, he said.

District resident Tom Sander, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and current college instructor, wants voters to vote "no" on the override.

"A 'no' vote on the override will not cause any serious problems to Amphi or the community we live in," he wrote in an e-mail message to the EXPLORER.

No programs would be cut if the override is not approved, and nothing would change, Little said. Just no new programs would be offered and no additional teachers would be brought in to lower class size.

Sander wrote that when he was a boy in school the average class size was much larger than the current 29 students. He said he went to a school with an average of 40 to 50 students a class and turned out to be successful.

While it is always difficult to say how the population of voters will vote May 17, looking at the response by the organization LEAP AHEAD - Leaders, Educators and Parents for Advancing Higher Education in the Amphitheater District - the numbers seem in favor of the override.

Composed of about 30 members, LEAP AHEAD formed in January to educate voters about the needs of the district and the needs of the students, said Boros, a member.

In the months that followed, flyers were sent out, phone calls were placed, and booths were set up at local events, Boros said.

Two surveys were conducted to gauge the feelings of voters in the area, many of whom may not have children in the district.

In the first survey, sent out Aug. 25 to parents and staff in the district, 70.2 percent replied that if the override election was held then they would vote in favor of it. Another 6.7 percent said they would vote against it, and 15.6 percent were undecided, said Lynne DeStefano, a co-chairwoman for the Blue Ribbon Committee.

In a similar phone survey of voters within the district conducted Nov. 6 to Nov. 11, 66.8 percent said they would vote "yes" on the override. Another 23 percent said "no," and 8.5 percent were undecided.

Boros is hoping voters continue to vote in favor of the override.

"Right now is the time to do it," she said. "To move. Vote 'yes' on May 17."

One local resident, Mary Schuh, said she did not appreciate the LEAP AHEAD flyer she received in the mail, adding that the lack of identification on it made her suspicious.

"I assume they are do-gooders for the district," she said, "or think they are."

Schuh would not say how voters should vote, but hopes all residents make an accurate assessment of their finances before agreeing to a tax increase.

"I'm not trying to influence how you vote, except you should vote intelligently," Schuh said.

Schuh is a former district board member. She was elected in the 2000 recall election and served until 2002. She is also a member and past president of the Pima Association of Taxpayers, a government watchdog group that generally opposes tax increases.

As for the vote she will cast May 17, Schuh said, "It's like the brand name of my underwear: It's my business."

DeStefano said she hopes voters realize that the need is great within the district.

She said voters need to recognize that the state of funding provided to the local school districts is inadequate. She added that, with the required passing of the AIMS test by all high school graduates and the No Child Left Behind legislation, no extra money is given to the district to bring about such changes and advancements.

John Wickham, an Oro Valley resident for more than 14 years and a retired U.S. Army general and a former U.S. Army chief of staff, said he recognizes the drastic way Amphi has cut its budget in all the right places.

"They have done diligence to cut costs, almost down to the bone and muscle," Wickham said. "They can't take any more out. There's no more fat left."

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