Educators, Voters Weigh Proposed Dysart Unified School District Override
Reading interventionist Tammy Bach tutors small groups of kindergarten through third grade students who struggle to read. For a decade, she worked at one school in the West Valley’s largest school district.
But Dysart Unified School District officials said a failed 2014 override forced them to cut $6 million in spending, and that doubled Bach’s workload to two schools. Bach said she’s sad because she knows students are slipping through the cracks.
“I’m literally seeing half the amount of kids that I need to see,” Bach said. “(In) K-3, you learn to read and then fourth — for the rest of your life — you read to learn. So if you don’t have those foundational skills by the time you are in, let’s just say fourth grade, you’re basically not going to be exposed to them ever again.”
Dysart has hemorrhaged more than 200 employees since last year, district officials said. They hope voters will approve a ballot measure next week that would prevent another $12 million in funding slashes and help retain people like Bach.
But not everyone supports the proposal. Dysart needs to learn to live within its means, said Bernie Paluch, chairman of the board for the Surprise Tea Party Patriots.
“The district has been, shall we say, less than forthcoming in presenting voters with true information,” Paluch said.
Dysart officials said they have been transparent about the District’s finances. If the override fails, they said the District may have to cut more non-essential services like math and reading interventionists, high school vocational programs and performing arts classes.
“The amount of money in these schools and the amount of money they have is exorbitant,” said Phil Mason, first vice president of the Arizona Republican Assembly.
Mason said an analysis of reports from Arizona's Office of the Auditor General and Dysart show classroom spending dropped from about 59 percent in 2006 to about 55 percent last year.
“They’ve put it into their administration,” Mason said. “They’ve put it into more managers. They’ve put it into classified people in the District offices.”
Dysart officials said that data is misleading because the Arizona Legislature has redefined how it counts classroom dollars. Classroom spending for this year is projected at about 70 percent, and sweeping cuts have kept administrative costs low, according to Dysart officials.
“I think Dysart is very conservative with how we use the public’s funds,” said Michael Hawkins, who’s been the principal at Dysart’s Shadow Ridge High School since it opened.
Shadow Ridge’s enrollment grew enough this year that Hawkins said he could have hired another teacher in each department. Instead, he said budget cuts mean there are forty students or more in some math and foreign language classes. When it comes to elective courses, Hawkins said the situation is worse; one choir class has 55 students.
“It's not just about reading, writing and math all the time,” Hawkins said. “It's about a student being able to be involved in sports or being able to be involved in performing arts.”
Performing arts and athletics are "fluff," according to Paluch. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for them, he said.
“We think that those people who benefit by those activities should be the ones paying for it,” Paluch said.
The Surprise Tea Party Patriots will likely get their wish if the override fails. Dysart schools like Kingswood Elementary could lose their performing arts programs, said music teacher Patti McDonald. She doesn’t think her class is fluff.
“Reading music is algebra,” McDonald said. “You’ve got an X axis. You’ve got a Y axis.”
Dysart already charges fees to parents whose children are involved in sports and performing arts, District officials said. They also say those activities are part of the override because they’re viewed as community priorities and they give students an opportunity to apply what they've learned.
Mason and Paluch said they are not anti-education. They praise teachers and want to see the system flourish.
“We want to find a way to make it better for the students, to make it better for the teachers, to make it better for the taxpayers,” Mason said. “And there is a way to do that. This isn’t the way.”
Voters can cast early ballots until 5 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Surprise city clerk’s office in City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.