Dec. 22, 2004 - It has been 61 years since Sun City Vistoso resident Chuck Walton graduated from high school in New Jersey. It has been 27 years since his youngest child graduated in Wisconsin.

So when Walton was asked to take a thorough look at the Amphitheater Unified School District's budget and assess whether the district would be justified in asking for a 10 percent budget override, he admits, "I had a lot of catching up to do."

After six months of scrutinizing public school finance and grilling Amphitheater officials on their spending practices, Walton was part of a team of 16 residents that recommended the district move forward with a budget override.

"I am convinced that the need for additional funds exists," Walton told the district's governing board at its regular meeting Dec. 14.

The next step will be for the school board to vote on whether to move forward with an override. A vote is expected as early as January.

Amphitheater has been exploring the possibility of an override for nearly two years.

This spring, the Blue Ribbon Budget Analysis Committee was charged with examining educational funding for Amphitheater schools, considering current and proposed program offerings, and recommending a course of action to the district's governing board. Members attended a series of meetings where they learned how school finance operates, what financial obligations the district has and where the district has to cut to stay within budget constraints.

An override would give the district voter approval to spend more money than state formulas normally allow. These formulas cap a school district's spending, regardless of its area's tax revenue. Such a measure has a set time frame and, once the clock has run out, it has to be renewed, or else that money goes away.

It would cost $60,000 to place an override onto the ballot in a general election, and closer to $100,000 if the district were to decide to hold a special election, according to associate superintendent and chief legal counsel Todd Jaeger. The recommendation of the committee suggests an election in May 2005, to take effect for the maintenance and operation budget beginning July 1, 2005.

Committee members, who unanimously supported the override, cautioned that the board will need to specifically define what the money will be used for before trying to "sell it" to the public. In its recommendation, the committee cited uses it believed would be appropriate based on community feedback and what was learned during the analysis process.

Committee co-chair Susan Zibrat said those recommendations were a "wish-list" and included reduction in class size; enhanced elementary, art and physical education; increased middle and high school elective offerings; academic intervention programs; compensation increases for staff; and expanded facilities and support staff.

A 10 percent override in the Amphitheater School District equates to approximately $6,800,000. Committee members stated that, after looking at revenue and expenditures in the district; demands on the budget, including increased costs for retirement, utilities, health insurance; rising gas prices and increased costs in other areas; much of that override money would be needed for basic operation and maintenance.

Zibrat and Lynne DeStefano got involved with the process as parents who were concerned about the future of the school system after reading about possible cuts to programs in the Northwest EXPLORER. Meeting at the library or a local restaurant, the pair started a grassroots campaign with a handful of other parents to get the the district to ask for an override.

When the district formed an official committee to look at the possibility, Zibrat and DeStefano were recruited as co-chairs. Other parents, staff members and community members were then asked to join in on the task.

A majority of the blue ribbon committee members turned out at the Dec. 14 board meeting to speak in support of the recommendation.

John Wickham, former U.S. Army chief of staff and another Sun City resident who served on the committee, said after hearing what the administration has done over the years to make cuts and spend within the budget each year, he was convinced that an override would be needed to continue with the level of education offered at Amphi.

"They (administrators) have done due diligence in cutting the fat out of the budget," he said. "But when you cut fat, you have to make sure you don't cut to the muscle or the bone."

He said if the community wants to be sure it will leave no child behind, it will "have to dig deeper," which Wickham said equates to anteing up more taxes.

Committee member Granger Vinall has two children in Canyon del Oro High School and said six years ago he was on the verge of pulling them out of Amphitheater schools because of how the district was being run.

"We were the ENRON of education, as a business," he told the board. But after crunching the numbers himself over the past months, he said he thinks the district is doing all it can with what it has.

"It's amazing the district hasn't declared bankruptcy recently," he said, adding that if and when the district pursues an override, it will be important to point out that the money will not be for "empire building" but to maintain the level of education currently offered in the district.

Another parent, Bill Nettling, that said while he believes in the override as "a passionate parent," winning will be difficult, and Amphi has a track record of defeat when it comes to such measures.

According to a community newsletter from the superintendent, one part of the process was to survey the community, which included staff and parents, to determine perceptions about the district. As a result, in August and September a "Satisfaction Survey" was sent out to all employees and parents in the district. Of those approximately 5,000 people who responded to the survey, about 70 percent indicated a belief that the district is headed in the right direction. The majority indicated they would support reduced class sizes; intervention programs to assist struggling students; competitive compensation packages for staff; increased core curriculum class offerings; more extracurricular activities; expanded art, music, and physical education for the elementary grades; and additional facilities support staff to ensure district facilities are properly maintained.

The district also surveyed voters who have a high turnout rate at the polls to determine "if a typical voter would support" an override. Of those 400 high efficacy voters, 68.5 percent indicated they would vote for an override. These results encouraged the board members.

While the board did not indicate how it will vote on this issue, several members expressed their gratitude for the work put into the analysis by the committee.

Boardmember Patty Clymer said, "It did my heart good to hear this," of the group's presentation.

"I can make a decision with a great deal of confidence," she said.

While Boardmember Mike Prout will not be around to vote on the issue, having served at his last meeting on Dec. 14 after choosing not run for re-election last November, he said the district has been preparing for an override for more than four years, but the timing was never right before. He said he believed the necessary legwork had been put in at this point to move forward.

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