Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
10-27-14 (reprinted with permission from Gilbert Watch)
by Jake Hoffman, Governing Board
Higley Unified School District
With an emphatic “yes” vote from Venessa Whitener, now Board President, a $300,000,000 anchor was tied to the neck of the Higley school district, leveraging millions of future classroom dollars every year for the next 40 years.
To begin, let’s establish some foundational concepts. First, I want Higley schools to offer the best education in the state of Arizona and the nation at-large. Second, the following facts are not arguments for or against the educational value of a middle school model versus a K-8 model. Third, the below information is not intended to diminish the world-class education that is occurring everyday by the teachers and students at our middle school campuses. Rather, this commentary serves as a clear example of why we must have a change in school board philosophy from one that simply rubber stamps the Superintendent’s agenda to a board that asks questions, seeks transparency, and vets each decision carefully to ensure that it will improve the educational opportunities provided for our children.
In 2012, the Higley school board asked the voters to approve three ballot measures—1) maintenance and operations override, 2) capital override, and 3) a lease extension. The then school board, including Venessa Whitener, and Superintendent claimed that the two overrides and lease extension were both necessary in order to build the middle schools—essentially, you couldn’t have one without the other. The Higley voters listened to the arguments for and against the ballot measures and voted “no” on both overrides; however, they approved the lease extension as an option for the future, but with the understanding that without the overrides the district could not proceed with constructing the middle schools.
In typical fashion, the board and administration opted to throw the will of the community to the wayside and built the schools anyway using a lease-lease back funding option. At the time, people like Venessa Whitener heralded their use as an “innovative” approach. Unfortunately for the current and future students of our great district, Mrs. Whitener and the board failed to read the not so fine print contained within the middle schools lease agreements.
The language in the lease agreements depict a disastrously expensive, rather un-innovative, fee schedule that will end up costing the Higley community more than 5 times the actual cost to build each of our middle schools over the life of the lease. The lease agreements contain two primary fee types—base fees and use fees. Both fee types are paid from the maintenance and operations (M&O) budget each year, which is the same budget that we use to pay our teachers, purchase classroom supplies, fund substitute teachers, keep our classroom sizes low, offer electives and more.
The funding model approved by Venessa Whitener is costing Higley’s M&O budget $2.9 million in annual base fees, subject to a necessary rise to $3.75 million in 2019. Additionally, it is costing our M&O budget $3.5 million in annual use fees, subject to a necessary rise to $4.45 million in 2019. The resulting total impact to Higley’s M&O budget for each of the middle schools is $6.4 million annually, subject to a necessary rise to $8.2 million in 2019 continuing through the end of the 40-year lease. The cost over the life of the lease agreement, for each school, is $157 million—a total price tag of approximately $314 million for our two middle schools.
Had Mrs. Whitener and her fellow board members conducted the level of due diligence deserving of a decision of this magnitude, they would have recognized that the cost to build each middle school should not have exceeded $30 million. Unfortunately, what should have cost Higley $30 million will now end up costing $157 million, more than 5 times the actual cost. Moreover, the required $6-8 million in annual M&O expenditures to satisfy the lease agreements equates to stealing $6-8 million from our classrooms each year for the next four decades.
Higley schools are exceptional thanks to our dedicated teachers, incredible students, and engaged parents. We are blessed to live in a community that invests themselves into creating the brightest future possible for future generations. We must ensure that our children’s academic future isn’t compromised by poor fiscal decision-making. It is imperative that every member of our community cast their vote for the two Higley school board candidates that are focused on putting children first and providing full funding for our classrooms.