COOLIDGE — “Bonds cannot be spent on salaries, they cannot be spent on pensions, they can’t be spent on pool chemicals (or) anything consumable like that,” Coolidge Unified School District Director of Business Services Alyssa Unger told attendees at the October Chamber of Commerce luncheon held last week.
Unger’s presentation covered the bond proposal the school district has on this year’s ballot. She also made an effort to address some confusion regarding how the money would be spent and how the district’s bond proposal differs from Proposition 434 — the $5 million bond issue proposed by the city of Coolidge to fund the construction of an aquatic center.
A majority yes vote on ballot question 435 posed by CUSD would enable the school district to sell up to $21 million in bonds over a 10-year period.
The initial bond sale, which would take place in 2020, would be for $5 million. According to Unger, that amount would cover the cost of a number of needed updates to school facilities around the district. Projects covered in the initial bond sale would include replacing the Coolidge High School track, replacing the curtains in the Coolidge Performing Arts Center and addressing air-conditioning unit failures, among other things.
Over $1.3 million would remain after the completion of the listed upgrades and repairs. Unger noted that the remaining funding would be used to cover any unexpected costs including leveling the land where the track currently stands before a new course is installed.
“We need everybody to know why we (CUSD) are having this election (and) what we intend to do with the dollars because that’s what has to be done,” she said. “We cannot change our minds. Once it has been made public, that is the plan.”
School districts primarily derive their funding from a primary property tax, which is set by the state. In addition, the state is also obligated to provide schools with funding for capital projects, which are assets that are important to maintaining the overall functionality of the school district. Capital projects can include the purchase of school buses, the development of new facilities or renovations to current school facilities.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, school districts saw the capital monies provided by the state cut by approximately 90%.
The Arizona School Boards Association estimates that since 2009, the state of Arizona has cut $4.56 billion from public school funding. Just under half of those cuts, $2 billion, have been made in the category of capital funding — also known as District Additional Assistance.
In recent years, only a portion of that funding — 20% of what is legally required by a ruling of the Arizona Supreme Court in 1994 — has been restored.
“What used to be a $1 million capital budget on an annual basis for us to maintain our facilities and maintain our vehicles was cut back to $170,000,” Unger said. “Charter schools received zero cuts (and), in addition to also receiving zero cuts on their capital dollars, their capital dollars increased with inflation.”
However, she noted that public school districts have the option to call for a bond election while charter schools cannot.
Bonds are typically paid for in the form of a secondary tax levy collected over a 20-year period.
“The state says ‘you don’t get capital funding, ask your local taxpayers to pass an additional levy for your capital expenditures,’” Unger said.
If it is approved, funding to pay back bond sales would be acquired through a $0.33 property tax increase on the school’s secondary tax levy.
Currently, the secondary property tax rate for CUSD is $1.14 per $100 net assessed valuation.
For the average residential property in Coolidge, with a tax value of $64,800, the property tax cost would rise to $5.04 per month or $60.53 annually.
Likewise, commercial properties in the area, which have an average tax value of $364,233, would see their property tax bill rise to $51.04 per month, or $612.45 annually.
The rate, Unger said, takes into account the sale of bonds up to $21 million.
“We have it built in that over the next 10 years, if we see the full $21 million need, the secondary tax rate would never exceed $1.74,” she said.
In addition, residential property owners would be footing the bill for only a portion of the increase. According to Unger, the top 50 property taxpayers within the school district pay approximately 52% of all taxes.
Most of those taxpayers, she noted, are corporations and parent companies with headquarters outside of Coolidge.
“All the rest of our homeowners together — less those 50 people — share 48% (of property taxes within the district),” she said.
Coupled with the cuts to capital funding from the state the district has seen over the last 10 years, CUSD officials said they felt the need to call for a bond election in light of a number of big ticket upgrades the district will require over the next five years.
Among more expensive items, those anticipated updates include nearly $4 million in repairing potential heating and air-conditioning failures.
“Even with our capital funding we would have to put HVAC as a priority,” Unger said. “We would not be able to put anything ahead of that because we cannot operate a school safely without HVAC systems.”
School district officials also confirmed that the Coolidge Performing Arts Center is now closed to the public after the curtains in the facility failed a test to inspect the fire retardant on the material. In previous public meetings, the school district indicated that fire retardant can no longer be applied to the curtains due to their age.
The curtains currently used in the PAC were installed when the center first opened in 1978.
Though Unger noted that the district does have the option to remove the curtains and reopen the facility, she indicated that estimated cost of taking down the curtains is $1,700.
Replacing the curtains would likely cost the district anywhere between $60,000 and $80,000.
As the final few weeks of the all-mail election wind down, CUSD officials also made an effort to address the difference between the district’s bond proposal and the bond issue placed on the ballot by the city of Coolidge.
The Coolidge city pool is currently housed on land belonging to Coolidge High School. The school district and the city share in the costs of maintenance of the pool as part of an intergovernmental agreement drafted in 1986.
As part of the agreement, the facility is open to both the students and Coolidge residents.
“It’s a very common thing for municipalities and school districts to collaborate resources and bring things together for students and the community,” Unger said.
One example, she noted, is Hamilton High School in Chandler, which also houses a city pool that is operated by the city of Chandler and utilized by the district.
Coolidge city officials have previously outlined that given the pool’s age, the facility has come to need a number of updates and repairs.
If passed by voters, the $5 million bond issue would go toward expanding the current facility to include an eight-lane competition pool, a splash pad for younger children and road improvements to Northern Avenue.
“The district has been planning for our capital needs and for our bond for over two years,” Unger said. “It just so happened that our plan came together at the same time that the city would like to build a pool. Other than that, they don’t cross. The district’s bond cannot and will not in any way be spent on the city’s pool.”