By Rebekah Morris for AZBEX
Nearly $1.3B in school bonds were approved by Arizona voters across the state in 20 different school district bond elections. The vast majority were decided in Maricopa County with Pinal County coming in as a far distant second.
Adequate education funding has become a trending topic through media coverage, increased attention brought by the Governor and legislature, and movements such as the Red for Ed protests by teachers in April of 2018. Funding for maintenance of existing and construction of new education facilities has been largely left up to the individual districts, who, in turn, rely on bonds to fund these projects. The state has largely unfunded school construction for decades.
$1.281B Pass Voters, $343M Fail in Record-Setting Year at the Ballot
In 2019, over $1.6B was requested of voters at the ballot at twenty different districts, the largest volume of bond dollars requested since BEX started tracking school bond questions in 2012. The largest requests and approvals came from:
- Chandler USD $290.25M
- Paradise Valley USD $236.1M
- Deer Valley USD $175M
- Tolleson USD $125M
- Gilbert USD $100M
The largest bond failure at the ballot comes from Dysart USD where voters declined to move forward with a $152M bond question. Similarly, in 2013, Dysart USD voters declined to support a nearly $87M bond question when asked. Additionally, voters in the City of Maricopa declined to support a bond that would have funded a new high school in the growing city.
Typically, even years see larger voter turnouts and school districts appear to try to coincide their bond questions with the larger turnout years. The last two years appear to be bucking that trend: 2018 saw a surprisingly low volume of school bonds at the ballot, just $646M, and this year is bouncing back with more than double that amount.
The average passage rate for all school bonds in the last seven years is approximately 80 percent, this year is spot on with 79 percent approved by voters. Budget increases and override questions achieved a slightly lower approval rate with 76 percent passing voters while 24 percent did not pass voters.
The bond funds in Chandler Unified allocate $225M to construction, acquisition, additions and/or improvements to new and existing schools. Specifically, two new schools are planned: one elementary and one high school. The Elementary School #31 will be located off Ocotillo Road and 148th Street in Gilbert. The high school would be located near Gilbert and Brooks Farm roads. This marks the second time in five years voters have approved bond questions for Chandler USD; the last $196M bond was passed in 2015.
Another $8M is expected to be directed towards construction and improvements to district buildings.
The remaining bond funds will go to repairs, maintenance and upgrades of school facilities, new textbooks, technology, buses and safety improvements.
Paradise Valley USD Approves $236.1M
Paradise Valley residents approved a bond question for $236M in funds, the second time in five years the district has successfully secured funding from voters. In 2015, voters approved $228M, the largest school bond question asked of voters in Arizona that year.
This year the district plans to continue maintaining and improving existing facilities with $128M of the bond amount, purchase land for $15M, construct a new instructional facility with $25M and invest in technology hardware and software with $41M.
Deer Valley USD Voters Approve $175M
For the second time in six years, voters in Deer Valley have approved a large bond question. In 2013 voters approved a $158.3M bond for the district.
Plans for the $175M approved this year include one new campus, Elementary School #32, as well as upgrades, maintenance and repairs at nearly every campus in the district. The majority of bond funds will be invested into existing campuses, improving everything from libraries and media centers to technology, furniture and energy efficiency upgrades.
Tolleson Union High School District Approves $125M
For the second time in three years, voters have supported the district’s request to approve bond monies for district improvements. Additionally this year voters have approved the request to sell/lease/exchange approximately 54 acres the district owns located at the southeast corner of South Dysart Road and West Broadway Road for a new school.
Gilbert Unified School District Approves $100M
Voters in the fast growing Town of Gilbert approved the district’s request for $100M in bond funds, along with an M&O Override. Items that will receive attention using these bond funds include: safety and security improvements, performing arts venues, stadiums and athletic facilities, energy efficiency projects, technology enhancements and transportation investments.
Needs Remain for School Facilities
School facility maintenance and construction in Arizona will continue to see demand due to growing population and long-term inadequate funding from the state. Bond funds are a solution more popular and attainable in higher property value districts. Several districts have banded together to sue the state for the lack of funding for capital needs. That lawsuit filed in 2017 is still making its way through the legal process. Meanwhile, the state has allocated more funding to the School Facilities Board for their Building Renewal Grant, approximately $80M for FY2020. For many districts, the bond approval process and maintenance and override funds are the only critical resource available to keep the facilities in good working order.