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Growing Arizona Schools Look Past State Funding For Building Needs
There are five different types of chairs for students to choose from at Queen Creek’s brand new Faith Mather Sossaman Elementary School.
There are regular chairs, standing desks, giant inflatable balls, cushions on the ground and purple backless stools that are designed to wobble.
“I just want to keep on wiggling around in it, yep,” said Tanner Kennedy, an incoming 5th grader. He chose one of the purple stools as his first day of school seat.
“My classroom is 21st century learning at its finest,” said teacher Kimberly Cowden. The variety of chairs and the desks on wheels are a part of that.
“The kids can just move about the room in a way that’s comfortable and more collaborative, much like they will in the workforce,” Cowden said.
This scene is a huge contrast to countless posts in teacher Facebook groups about broken chairs and desks their schools can’t afford to replace.
Tanner’s mom, Cindy Kennedy, is impressed with the building and the science, technology engineering, arts and math curriculum.
“We’ve been lucky that since we’ve been in Arizona like, and my kids have been in school, they’ve gotten a lot of newer schools because in the East Valley, they’re all building them,” Kennedy said.
The Queen Creek Unified School District estimates student growth at 13 percent — that’s between 900 and 1,000 new students every year.
“We needed to build a school in a quickly developing area,” said Bobette Sylvester-McCarroll, associate superintendent for business operations in the district.
Districts that want to build a new school can make a case to the Arizona School Facilities board. There are rules on who qualifies for funding. For example, Sylvester-McCarroll said that if a district still had open seats in the south side, it would have to fill those before building a new school to serve the northern part of the district.
“That doesn’t always coincide with the needs of the neighborhood where projected construction is happening so you know the enrollment is coming, but it hasn’t hit in the area,” Sylvester-McCarroll said.
In the case of Faith Mather Sossaman Elementary, the district didn’t meet the board’s criteria for money.
Another option would have been to ask voters to approve a higher property tax to pay for the school in a bond election, but that solution wasn’t certain or fast enough.
“We had to go out and create a short term option for funding while we waited to get bond approval from our voters,” Sylvester-McCarroll said.
Last fall, Queen Creek voters did approve re-purposing a previous bond to pay for the new $18.3 million school.
Sylvester-McCarroll said Faith Mather Sossaman Elementary is likely to be at capacity in its first year.
The district is already planning to build three more schools with a combination of money from the school facilities board and bonds funded by the community.
Peoria Teachers Worry Students Can Get Lost In the Shuffle As District Grows
At a Starbucks just east of Peoria, teacher Heather Nieto prepares her lesson plans for her second year at Sunrise Mountain High School.
“I take an 11x17 piece of paper and put a week, and map out several ways of covering a topic,” she said.
The district Nieto works for, Peoria Unified School District, used almost all of the money they got from the state last year to help pay for 11 percent teacher raises this year.
She said it helps, but doesn’t make up for the fact that Nieto is also dealing with a classroom of up to 40 high school students.
“It does become crowd control," Nieto said. "Kids get lost in the shuffle. If I have a kid who’s falling behind, it’s hard to keep up with that.”
Along with money for salaries, the state gave schools more District Additional Assistance this year, meant mostly for infrastructure costs. But most, including Peoria, used it for salaries.
And now the district is asking the community to vote for a $189.2 million bond.
“That would go to fund a number of things for our school district that are not related to salaries," said Danielle Airey, Peoria Unified spokeswoman.
Airey says those things would include land and money for a new high school and elementary school, likely in the north near Vistancia.
The district’s last bond failed in 2016. Airey said this new bond proposal would keep the property tax rate at or below $1.60 per $1,000 of accessed market valuation.
Nearly half this bond would go to improvements at all 42 school campuses, like roofs for example, that the district couldn’t pay for with the extra state money.
“We do have capital needs at the end of the day, those items that we know are critical to support the work that goes on in the classroom," Airey said. "So bond funds are a way that allows us to go out to our community to ask to receive some of those things that just aren’t covered anymore in our basic budget.”
The bond would also go to technology.
Back in Starbucks, Nieto clicked through her website; kind of a virtual classroom she’s made for her students.
She only has enough computers for about half the class though.
“We have technology, but it’s not enough," Nieto said. "And it’s really hard to do during testing.”
Parts of AzMERIT testing can be done online, others on paper, depending on what the district decides to use. Nieto said some students got kicked off the test when the Wi-Fi didn’t work. That's another example of infrastructure that could be updated with bond money, if it passes, since the state did not provide enough for the rest of the district’s capital needs this year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the correct property tax rate information for the Peoria Unified School District bond proposal and to clarify how the AzMERIT testing is done.