October 18, 2006 - At Tortolita Middle School, teachers move a single desk back and forth between rooms to accommodate certain class loads.

At Coyote Trail Elementary School, some teachers spend about $400 of their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms.

Throughout the Marana Unified School District and most districts in the state, schools send letters to parents asking for donations of dry eraser markers, Kleenex boxes and other supplies.

"We were lucky to have the Tucson Conquistadors fund our football team," Tortolita Principal Jane D'Amore said.

Marana schools, like those throughout the region, continue to feel the pinch, thanks to a state Legislature that ranks last or close to it each year in education funding.

MUSD officials earlier this year formed a committee to investigate whether the district should ask voters for an override budget. Almost every other district in the Tucson region operates with millions of extra dollars approved by voters.

An override allows the district to exceed by up to 10 percent the spending limit the state puts on school districts. That will mean a small increase in the district's property tax rate to pay for the spending increase.

District officials estimate the override will provide the district at least an additional $6.2 million a year for five years, based on the district's current budget. As the district's state-approved spending limit increases from year to year - a figure based on student enrollment and other factors - the dollar amount coming to the district by the 10-percent override also will increase.

School district budget overrides have a seven year term, but in the sixth and seventh years the state reduces the excess spending amount by a third. That means a district with a 10-percent override can only exceed the cap by about 6.6 percent. As a result, most districts go back to voters every five years to renew the override.

Districts do not have to seek the full 10 percent override, but most do, as will MUSD, according to district Chief Financial Officer Dan Contorno.

The district's first and secondary tax rates currently have residents paying $5.90 per $100 of assessed property. The override would increase the tax rate by 94 cents, meaning the owner of a home with an assessed value of $100,000 would pay about $94 more a year.

The overall tax rate in the district will fluctuate from year to year as more students move into the district and as more properties are developed, thereby increasing the overall assessed value of the district.

The $6.2 million override "just gets us even," MUSD Superintendent Denny Dearden said.

That's true. The Marana school district this year has an operating budget of $65.9 million, an amount that dead ends with state money and federal grants, which run out before officials realize.

"The fear I have of grants is that they can't be sustained," D'Amore said. "You're taking a risk that a program won't be around again."

Tucson Unified School District gets about $13 million in court-ordered desegregation money. Vail, Sunnyside, Flowing Wells and Catalina Foothills school districts all have override budgets, providing millions of extra dollars.

Amphitheater school district gets desegregation money, in addition to money tagged for teacher career development and a $7.5 million override.

Sixty-six percent of voters approved Amphi's override in May 2005. The measure's passing came after voters shot down several proposed overrides in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amphi has poured its extra money into the expansion of summer school, tutoring, art, music and physical education programs. It also has earmarked the money for reducing the size of social studies and math classes district wide.

Amphi added 85 positions with override money, Finance Director Scott Little said. Cross Middle School now offers lab science, marine biology and video technology classes for the first time, he added.

"(The override) has helped us expand programs and reduce class sizes," Little said. "Clearly, though, Marana has its own needs."

At Marana High School, each teacher gets about $50 to spend on classroom supplies, Principal Jim Doty said. In years past, teachers relied on a recently-expired federal tax deduction that would reimburse teachers up to $250 for out-of-pocket expenses.

Departments send budget requests to the principal before each school year. "It comes back to me and I slash it," he said.

The high school used a grant to launch its lauded smaller-learning communities, in which students pick an academy or specific area of study after their freshman year. The money has run out, leaving teachers to write curriculum and work extra hours without pay, Doty said.

Doty and other principals have told tales of teachers who went to work with other districts because of higher salaries or a signing bonus. One math teacher chose TUSD over MUSD because the city district offered $8,000 more a year. She passes Marana High on her way to work at Tucson High everyday, Doty said.

Rocky Sugameli, the district's leadership development director and former principal, watched his son choose not to work in Marana because another district could pay more.

Turnover haunts the district in more than just the classrooms, officials said, though no accurate turnover studies have been conducted. MUSD pays aides, clerks and custodians some of the region's lowest wages, according to records.

A starting janitor at MUSD earns $8.03 an hour, compared to almost $10 in Amphi or even up to $12 in TUSD.

In addition, the district's salary scale treats veteran and rookie teachers and support staffers the same when they come to work in Marana. A teacher just out of college with a bachelor's degree and a teacher with 10 years of experience both earn $30,326 their first year with MUSD.

The district's base salary for starting teachers exceeds those at Amphi, Sunnyside, Flowing Wells and Vail school districts. However, Marana lacks the additional monies and stipends that in the end put the other districts on top. The effect trickles down to even plumbers.

"It's becoming more and more difficult for us to retain and recruit," Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Dumler said, adding that at no time this past year did the district have all custodian and special education aide positions filled.

An override could help the situation, officials said.

"Next, you'll ask us to come to the table with what we'll be spending the money on," Dearden told the district's override committee at a meeting last week. "That won't be as easy as it sounds."

Marana Chamber of Commerce Director and committee member Ed Stolmaker wondered if override money would indeed cut through bureaucracy and get to the classroom level.

"It has to," Dearden assured him. "We don't joke when we say we want to be a world-class district."

Committee Co-Chair Eric Brandrif already sees the need for the additional money. The committee, which includes parents and others from throughout the district, should focus on the necessity of the override before members determine how the district will spend the money, he said.

"I, for one, think it's necessary," said Brandriff, who will serve on district's governing board beginning Jan. 1, thanks in part to an uncontested election. "I'm about ready to write a check for (Doty) right now," he joked.

The committee will evaluate spending priorities at its next two meetings on Oct. 24 and Nov. 14. Officials hope to bring the matter to the governing board in January.

If passed by the board in time, the measure would appear on the May ballot. The district then would prepare two budgets - one without and one with override money. Depending on the vote, the district could spend override money this coming school year.

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