How A Southern Arizona School District Deals With A High Poverty Rate

Published: Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 12:53pm
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LAUREN GILGER: A new report from EdBuild shows the gaps between many school districts in this country are vast. In their new report called Faultlines, the nonprofit, which focuses on school finance fairness, finds the most segregating school district borders nationwide.

ZAHAVA STADLER: What we looked at is the poverty rate among students on either side of the border. So we were looking for the borders that create the steepest degree of economic segregation between one school system and the one next door.

GILGER: That's EdBuild Policy Director Zahava Stadler. She says while most of these segregating districts are located in the South and the Rust Belt, No. 11 on the list is right here in Arizona. It's the line between Nogales Unified School District on the border in southern Arizona and Sahuarita Unified. Here's more from Stadler.

STADLER: So the poverty rate in Nogales Unified is 44.6%. So 45% of Nogales kids in federal data live in poverty. And Sahuarita, that number is just 10%. So 34-point gap between those two districts. That's a really significant difference. That makes Nogales the 11th most segregating border in the nation.

GILGER: So what's the result? According to Stadler, it is all about school funding.

STADLER: So when you have a school district border, it's two things. One, everybody knows it defines the schools in the school system and the kids that go to them. But a school district boarder is also something else. And that is the outline of a taxing jurisdiction. Because our school funding system in almost every state, including Arizona, begins with a foundation of local property taxes, when you outline a jurisdiction and say, "OK, this is the local from which local property taxes are going to be raised," then the wealth of that community does a lot to determine the money that's going to wind up in schools. And so what we see is that the Nogales school system winds up with about $1,650 less per student than Sahuarita.

GILGER: So you only found these kinds of differences, these these incredibly segregated borders in 13 states, like you say. That's pretty specified where they are. What are some of the commonalities among them, understanding that Yuma in Arizona is kind of the outlier here?

STADLER: Yeah. So what we see in general is that these borders are very likely to come up. First of all, when you have communities that haven't bounced back from the recession or have a long history of economic challenges. So, for instance, when industrial employers leave towns in the Rust Belt or the way farming has changed in the Deep South, to require fewer workers provide a lot less employment. So things like that mean that a community is struggling, but that's not enough to create segregation between school districts. What we need to see is that the school district border is drawn in a place to separate haves from have-nots. And in a lot of the places where we see these borders, we're looking at states that draw their school districts really narrowly. So what I mean is states where almost every town is a school district or the school districts are pretty small. And what that means is when the town is struggling, so will the school district. When jobs leave town, that the children in that school district are almost uniformly going to be living in poverty. So drawing those school districts narrowly around a particularly economically troubled area means that the economic problems of that town are going to become destiny for its schools.

GILGER: So would school district consolidation be the answer to you — having not so narrowly drawn districts but broader ones that are covering more space and a more diverse student body?

STADLER: You could shift these borders in any number of ways, including consolidating them in order to encompass more socioeconomically diverse communities. And one thing we do see is that when you have states that are all or almost entirely drawn along county lines for their school districts, that we see very, very few of these borders. So states like North Carolina, West Virginia, Nevada that draw most or all of their school districts at the county level. What happens when a town experiences a downturn is that town genuinely does see economic problems, but in its schools, it just becomes a high need corner in a larger, more diverse school district that still has plenty of resources to draw on to make it schools well-funded and its classrooms, economically diverse.

GILGER: So that leads me to my last question for you, which is about places that are doing this really well. I mean, did you look at the other side of the spectrum and see states that have not seen this issue?

STADLER: Well, what's interesting is that you don't need to be a rich state in order to avoid this problem. In fact, actually, some rich states see this problem in huge ways in the Northeast. We do see, for instance, a state like Vermont in which you don't have a school funding system that's rooted in local property taxes. They use a state property tax to fund education. That means that local economy is not going to be destiny. And that means that high wealth communities have no incentive to fence themselves off with these segregating school district borders. And that could be a very probable reason that we don't see Vermont on this list of segregating school district borders. Also, when you look at, as I mentioned earlier, places that draw their school district borders broadly, largely at the county level, places like, say, North Carolina has none of the 50 worst borders in the nation.

GILGER: Zahava Stadler with Ed Build. Thank you so much for coming on The Show.

STADLER: Thank you so much.

GILGER: So what does this look like on the ground? Well, it's not always as black-and-white as it might seem. I got a hold of the assistant superintendent of Nogales Unified, who said while these kinds of disparities definitely cause challenges there, they're doing well. In fact, Nogales High boasts a 95% graduation rate, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Here's more of my contract conversation with Angel Canto.

ANGEL CANTO: Really we weren't surprised. When Mr. Potter — our superintendent — and I were looking at it. It didn't come as news to us. We know our community. We know how we compare to others around the state. Regarding the finances, poverty, etc. So this was not really surprising to us.

GILGER: What are some of the big differences between these two school districts? You're at Nogales Unified there and then right next door bordering it is Sahuarita.

CANTO: One of the big differences, which is the poverty. Obviously, our poverty rate is a lot higher, and then kind of our whole demographic. So being a border community, we have a higher minority population than they do. But that was something that we've been aware of. ... Some people might view those as challenges. For us, that's just our community that we love. And so we view it a little bit differently. That's just who we are. And I think we do great things with the money that we have to do the best we can educationally for our students and to help them really be successful — college and career ready, as it were.

GILGER: What do you think has led to this in the in this community, especially looking at, you know, right next door, such a difference in terms of income?

CANTO: Well, here in Santa Cruz County, it's kind of been a challenge for us just ongoing. Incomes here generally are lower. There aren't many large corporations and opportunities with large businesses here. And so you just don't have those opportunities here within the community that would enable people to have, you know, that average higher level. [Sahuarit is] very different. They have the railroad there going through. ... The mine is there. They have a lot of businesses. They're growing, whereas we're kind of held how much we can grow by the border. And so those businesses enable them to generate some income, taxes that we wouldn't have the opportunity to do because we don't have those larger businesses here. Some of the businesses would be across the line in Nogales, Sonora, rather than located here in our community. And there's a lot of folks that work in our community but don't live in our community. So they may live outside of our community. So they're not contributing to the economy here.

GILGER: What kind of effect do you think this kind of disparity has on the students? I mean, you mentioned doing the best in doing a lot with the money that you do have, the tax base that you do have there, but not having as much. Do you think it makes a difference?

CANTO: I think it makes our work harder because of the way the state funds everyone equally versus maybe equitably. We have to make up the difference with our taxes and with grant funding. We're very fortunate that we have such a caring community who deeply values education. But we definitely are sensitive to the economic issues here. And so we're very careful about the amount that we ask through taxes, our communities to support. So we have an override, but it's probably the lowest in the state. We haven't gone out for a bond. Our neighbor has indeed gone out for both. They have the ability to do that. I think that would be a burden on our community. What that makes us do that is you have to look, where else can I get those funds? So we have to be more careful about applying for grants. We get federal funding with Title 1, etc. But we have to make sure that we're going above and beyond. So rather than going out for a bond to meet, our facility needs our superintendent, our facilities director. They're working very hard with the school facilities support to qualify for funding to get some of those facility needs taken care of that way through grant funding versus burdening our taxpayers. So we have to do a lot more work to find other funding sources to provide what we want to for our students. And we've been fortunate — I think blessed — that we've been able to do that. But it's more work than somebody else might have to do where they're able to have the ability to just go out for a bond or an override in their community and generate those funds that way.

GILGER: So one of the ideas that's been floated by EdBuild when I spoke with them that they think could maybe solve disparities like this, is district consolidation, making bigger districts that maybe, you know, are drawn at county lines or something like that? What's your reaction to an idea like that? Do you think it would help?

CANTO: No, personally, I don't. I think when you look at some of the poverty levels across the state, those tend to be the same across the county. So I don't see where that would help the issue and provide funding. So I don't believe that would be helpful.

GILGER: You'd rather look at things like the the funding formula from the state.

CANTO: Yes. And finding ways to where instead of being equal, perhaps it's equitable and you give a little bit more where the challenges are a little bit greater with regards to poverty.

GILGER: All right. That is Angel Canto, assistant superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District. Angel, thank you so much for joining us.

CANTO: Thank you.

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