Families moving into new housing developments within the boundaries of the Amphitheater Public Schools district will now face the possibility of having their children bused to schools outside their neighborhood following a unanimous decision April 29 by the Amphi Governing Board to institute pocket exceptions to school attendance zones.
The proposal, first rejected by the board at its April 15 meeting, was brought forth again by Amphi legal counsel Todd Jaeger and passed after brief discussion.
In addition, the board heard a lengthy presentation concerning the possibility of conducting a budget override, election in the spring of next year. Jaeger offered the board information concerning the timeline and requirements for a district override election, the proposed cost, the history of past overrides in the district, possible dates for a future override election rules limiting participation by board members and district officials, and sample ballots from other school districts' override elections. An override allows districts to exceed their state-set budget limit by assessing more property taxes.
The pocket exceptions procedure will allow Amphi to notify developers in the district's northern end that children in their developments may have to be bused outside their neighborhood schools if those developers do not agree to give voluntary school donations. There are a number of schools in Amphi's northern end, particularly Coronado K-8 School, 3401 E. Wilds Road, that are nearing capacity, and the State Schools Facilities Board has said it will not give the district money to construct a new school for 10 years.
The board, established under the Students FIRST legislation, determines when school districts can build schools with state money, basing that determination on total capacity in the district.
Amphi began asking for donations from developers last year to help fund additions to schools in the fast-growing northern part of the district. District officials also think a new middle school will be necessary before the Schools Facilities Board's timeline of 10 years.
The traditional means for dealing with school overcrowding is to redraw boundaries, displacing students already settled there. The new policy would limit the disruption to new students in the attendance area instead of upsetting people who have lived in a particular school zone for a number of years, Jaeger said.
Boardmember Jeff Grant said he still found the idea of busing students out of their neighborhoods unsatisfactory, "but reluctantly, I agree there doesn't seem to be another option." He encouraged the staff to continue to explore other alternatives of dealing with overcrowding in the district's northern schools.
Board Vice President Kent Barrabee said "there's a risk element" to establishing pocket exceptions to school boundaries, but "the likelihood of getting support (from developers) appears slim at the moment without his policy."
Paula Abbott, a district parent and member of the Oro Valley Town Council, spoke in favor of the busing plan, saying, "the district is moving in the right direction and putting the onus where it belongs, back on the developers."
"Today districts can't just build schools where they need them … so the school district has a choice: redraw boundary lines and displace many, or displace a few that cannot be absorbed into the schools in their immediate area," Abbott said. "I must concede that busing children has never been a desirable or good long-term solution, however, in this case, it is the lesser of two evils. It is my hope this will be short-term and that developers will be motivated to do the right thing. New times call for creative solutions."
Superintendent Vicki Balentine said Amphi would seek the governing board's permission each time it thinks it needs to implement pocket exceptions. Jaeger said last month that there's no immediate need to pocket yet, but the district wants the option available.
Concerning the override election, Jaeger said Pima County Chief Deputy School Superinten-dent Scott Little told him the district should expect to spend about $100,000 in election costs to conduct an override. The earliest the school district could have an election would be March 9, 2004 and the next option would be May 18, 2004 and, if successful, the override could add up to $6.4 million to the district's 2004-2005 budget.
Two parents spoke in favor of an override, saying they were representing the many parents and teachers who packed the April 15 board meeting where a number of speakers asked the board to consider an override election.
"Yes, there are people home tucking their kids into bed and reading them stories, but surely their souls and their spirits are here," said Lynne DeStefano, a parent from Painted Sky Elementary School, 12620 N. Woodburne Ave. She added that many parents would work for an override and said she would canvass (retired) residents herself if necessary to drum up support for the schools.
Bill Nettling, who has children at Mesa Verde Elementary School, 1661 W. Sage St., and Cross Middle School, 1000 W. Chapala Dr., nearly came to tears when asking the board to accept the help of parents in fighting for an override election.
"We have a lot of passionate people out there that are willing to fight," Nettling said. "They are going to vote with their dollars one way or another to find ways for their children to have those programs, whether it is a tax increase (through an override) or a tuition bill from a private institution, they're going to spend those dollars …we're ready to help, but you have to let us know what to do."
The override election timeline presented by Jaeger delineated the need for the district to develop two budgets - one based on a successful override, and the other based on no override - announce the election, solicit arguments in favor and against the override, report to the county school superintendent, write a ballot and hold the election.
A parent who spoke in favor of the override said it would be important for the ballot to be as specific as possible in naming what the money would go for, but Jaeger explained to the board that is risky because if the district tells voters funds are required for a specific program, "programs have to be cut then if an override fails. In a very real way, you're binding yourself to future action in terms of cuts in programs … or you very likely could be accused of voter fraud."
Amphi held override elections in 1979, 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990, Jaeger said. Only the 1987 override was passed.
In other action, the board unanimously approved fee increases for driver's education classes from $130 to $150; increases for interscholastic activities from $20 to $25 per sport at the high school level and from $10 to $15 at the middle school; and increases for adult admission to district athletic events from $3 to $4 to generate more revenue to combat anticipated budgetary constraints.
AMPHI SAYS NO TO BUS ADVERTISING
Amphitheater Public Schools district may be desperate for funding in light of proposed state budget cuts, but they are not so desperate as to agree to use their school buses as rolling advertising marquees.
District staff presented a study item for board consideration April 29 examining a state law allowing school districts to sell advertising on the exterior of their school buses. The law imposes limitations concerning the type of advertising, the method of displaying that advertising and the manner in which funds earned from the advertising can be spent, said district council Todd Jaeger.
Board members listened carefully as Superintendent Vicki Balentine explained the options "to create revenue" for Amphi, then made it clear they were reluctant to use the district's school buses for fund-raising. In fact, the idea seemed to appear so ludicrous to members that they could not hold back laughter when expressing their concerns.
"City buses with their billboard signs come to mind," said boardmember Mike Prout. "Surely you're talking about discreet signs, and the yellowness of the bus would be protected for safety reasons, correct?" he asked, to his colleagues' laughter.
Balentine assured him the signs would be small and the buses remain "the big yellow school bus."
Kent Barrabee, board vice president, said the board might need to consider bus advertising to see "what kind of income it might bring because "it will be very hard to ask people to give us more money (in a budget override) if we aren't willing to look at every option" to raise funds, but added, "It distresses me greatly that finances have come to this."
Patty Clymer said she had thought about the issue for days since receiving her board materials and could not support it.
"Mr. Barrabee, I feel your distress. I tried to find something positive about it and the only thing I could come up with is that kindergarten children on the first day of school (have) the stress of finding their bus because they don't yet know their numbers and how a child might say, 'Don't worry Mom, I'm on the Taco Bell bus'," Clymer said. "But I can't see our buses becoming rolling billboards. Kids are inundated with advertising day and night … I would have a hard time supporting advertising on buses."
Boardmember Jeff Grant joked that perhaps the district could get the Army to advertise on the buses to help pay for ROTC program fees the district now pays for its students to attend ROTC in the Flowing Wells district.
Barrabee said the staff should look into bus advertising and consider something that "maintains some dignity and offers instruction" like public service announcements, although "it might not be worth this degradation."
Board President Nancy Young Wright said advertising on school buses would allow Amphi "to boldly go where no one has gone before," but seemed to her to be "the equivalent of standing on the corner with a sign saying, 'Buddy can you spare a dime.' I just can't see this."