By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
It wasn’t too long ago that students in Gilbert’s largest school district were riding in buses that were older than them, broke down frequently and barely got three or four miles on a gallon of gas.
But thanks to a $98 million bond, Gilbert Public Schools could buy 40 full-size buses and 13 special-needs buses for $8.1 million.
“Before the new buses in the first few days of school, there would be a number of buses breaking down as we waited for the new buses to come in,” said Jill Humpherys, a member of the GPS governing board. “Since then we’ve not heard of buses breaking down.
“We do rely on these bonds tremendously because we are not receiving the same amount of money from the state as we had in the past.”
Staff updated school board members last week on projects funded by the 2015 voter-approved bond.
Voters that year also approved a 10-percent maintenance and operations override, which allowed the district to increase spending for its day-to-day operations such as teacher raises and programs.
The override generated $18.5 million for the district in the fiscal year that ended last June 30 and is in effect for seven years.
Since the bond’s passage, the district has held two sales – in 2016 and again this year – that generated a total $62.3 million. So far, the district has spent $40 million of it – $12.8 million on technology, $8.4 million on transportation, $18.6 million on facilities maintenance and $356,535 on school improvements.
The district’s remaining bond to be sold is $35.6 million, and that third sale may be accelerated more quickly than anticipated, according to Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Betz.
Once all the bond is sold, $40 million is expected to go for facilities maintenance, $35 million for technology, $15 million for transportation and $8 million for school improvement, according to the district.
Paul Potts, transportation director, noted that the district is trying to reduce the average age of buses from 20 to 12 years.
“There are still some old vehicles we hope to get rid of with the bond purchase,” he said, adding he hopes to get the average age down to 8 to 10 years.
The old buses were less efficient both in mileage and emissions, Potts said.
Jon Castelhano, technology executive director, listed projects funded by bond money that included improvements to the network infrastructure and refreshed laptops for teachers.
Some improvement projects last fiscal year included improving school safety, remodeling multiple computer labs at Mesquite, Highland Park, Greenfield and Superstition Springs elementary schools and new flooring at Canyon Rim, Mesquite and Augusta Ranch elementary schools.
Money also was spent upgrading five outdated science labs at Gilbert Classical Academy. The honors high school was moved in 2017 into the former Gilbert Junior High School campus.
The old labs were geared more toward junior high students, had no eyewash stations, no hot water, no prep stations and no fume hoods, according to Albert Dutchover, operations director.
Work also was done on deteriorating school parking lots, many which were worn down to the gravel at a cost of $2.5 million, Dutchover said.
Despite all the projects completed, the district is still playing catch up.
Board member Reed Carr said taxpayers need to understand the reason why the district incurred these expenses was that there was no money for preventative maintenance so projects were put on hold, creating a backlog.
Carr used as an example, the parking lot at Mesquite High School that had to be milled down and rebuilt at a cost of $600,000.
Had the district been able to afford $30,000 to reseal the lot years earlier, it would have prevented a lot of the erosion, according to Dutchover.
“There’s no question if we had the money, we could have avoided this,” Dutchover said.
Carr said it hurts as a taxpayer and as a board member to see that happen. He added at the time the district went to voters for approval on the $98 million bond, there were $400 million in capital projects on the table.
Humpherys said the district asked for one-third of what it needed due to previous failures to get approvals for two Maintenance and Operations Overrides, one in 2012 and one in 2013.
Those failures prompted the then-board to decide against putting another override before the voters in 2014. Partly due to the override loss, the district for the 2014-15 fiscal year ended up cutting approximately $6 million from its maintenance and operations budget.
The board also discussed the recent letter grades the state handed out to all school districts. The district increased the number of “A”-rated schools in 2018 by four from the prior year for a total of 38 and dropped the number of “C” schools by two.
The grades are largely based on AzMERIT tests results. Although district schools outperformed the state’s average in the standardized test for 2018, still nearly half of its student body weren’t proficient at reading, writing and math.
“We have a lot of strengths, but there are areas we need shoring up,” said Brandi Harris, director of assessment.
Next steps include providing data from the standardized test and support to campuses so they can focus on students struggling to learn, according to Harris.
Humpherys also asked for a future study session so the board can delve further into the test data to see where improvements are needed and what can be done.