$28.8M deficit looms as Mesa schools seek override OK
May 6, 2019
By Jordan Houston
Mesa Public Schools (MPS) is giving voters a second chance to approve a 15 percent budget override that, if unsuccessful again, could leave the district $28.8 million in the red next year.
The school board voted last week to move forward with a special override election on Nov. 5, emphasizing a critical need for the property-tax funded increase.
Although MPS has been operating under a 10 percent override since 1995, it needs an additional 5 percent in order to stay afloat, according to Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson.
Thompson explained that the district’s biggest challenge has been meeting the requirements of the 2016 voter-approved minimum wage referendum.
“The primary thing for us is that the minimum wage increase is making it hard for us to maintain a minimum wage for our classified employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” he said. “If we’re unsuccessful in making this happen, we will be facing millions of dollars of cuts.”
While the current override covers only 8.7 percent of the district’s employees, the district – which serves more than 63,000 students – is struggling to recover from the ripple effect of Proposition 206.
Superintendent Ember Conley has already imposed a hiring freeze for all positions except teachers, and a hold has been placed on all capital projects and expenditures.
On top of tackling the wage increase, the school district hopes to funnel more money toward increased school security staffing, attracting and retaining quality teachers and preventing increases in class sizes, said Thompson.
“We’re going to focus on other areas that people seem to identify with more, like attracting and retaining good teachers,” he stated. “We’re going to try to change the way we speak bout it so that people can connect a little better about what it is and why it’s better for us.”
If the override is approved, Mesa homeowners can expect to pay an extra $14.76 per month per $100,000 of assessed valuation.
The election is projected to cost $600,000 – even though it’s mail-ballot only – and because the state-required two-year phase-out begins next year, it’s considered a last-ditch effort for the district to secure its funding.
During the board meeting, freshman member Marcie Hutchinson said she thinks it’s crucial the district starts spreading the word about the election as soon as possible.
“It gives us the opportunity to say, as a board, that we know this is important. We have studied it extensively and this has to happen,” she said. “The more time we give ourselves to inform our employees, our parents, and even our students who will be voters in November, the more time we can inform people, the better.”
She added, “Those that don’t know will vote no.”
Once the board calls for an override election, the district is no longer allowed to “campaign” for a yes vote it is only allowed to present the facts surrounding the details of the situation.
Thompson said that doesn’t concern him though, because the “facts speak for themselves.”
He also told the East Valley Tribune that Mesa Public Schools is planning on taking a different approach in terms of how it disseminates its information.
“It’s harder to connect with voters than it used to be. We have to deal with Instagram and Facebook – people just get their information a lot differently today,” he said. “We’re challenged by that and that’s what we are trying to figure out.”
Thompson attributed last year’s failure – which was the first in Mesa since the first override was approved in 1995 – to confusing ballot language.
“While we call it a budget override, on the ballot it’s referred to as budget increase. I think that was at the heart of confusion,” he said. “We’re looking to change the conversation with the community to say we’re talking about a budget increase so that our language tracks with what they find in the mail.”
Last year’s override election lost by about 2,600 votes, but a new “likely voter survey” suggests a more optimistic outcome for the upcoming election.
The survey, presented during the meeting, indicates that 56 percent of possible voters would vote for an override, while 34 percent said no and 9 percent were unsure.