By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert Public Schools will ask voters to approve a 15-percent override and a $10 million bond to pay for things such as more social workers, teacher compensation and classrooms upgrades.

The Governing Board last week approved 4-0 to put both funding measures on the Nov. 5 ballot. Board member Charles Santa Cruz was absent.

“We as a board have given this lot of consideration and have not taken this lightly,” Board member Jill Humpherys said.

“We know people move to the Gilbert and Mesa areas because of the quality of the public schools,” she added. “If we are going to continue that quality we have to go out for the 15-percent override just as every other district has or will do this year in the surrounding area.”

Gilbert homeowners who live within the boundary of Chandler Unified School District shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief: That district’s board is likely later this month to also call for a bond election.

If the GPS override is approved, property owners within its boundaries would see a tax increase. For an average-value home in Gilbert of $206,125, the property tax bill would increase by $99.04 a year – or $8.25 a month – according to the district.

Voters in 2016 approved a 10-percent maintenance and operations override and a $98 million bond. The district includes 40 schools stretched over Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa.

An override allows a district to increase spending for its day-to-day operations such as staff raises and supplies.

Gilbert’s current override generates about $19.5 million annually, which funds programs, compensation and class size. The 10-percent override is fully funded through fiscal year 2021.

An override is good for seven years, beginning with the fiscal year after the election, but a district only receives full funding the first five years.

The funds then drop by one-third in the sixth year and by two-thirds in the seventh. After that the district’s budget limit returns to the state-imposed limit.

Board member Lori Wood questioned the need for an election now when there was still a year of full funding left on the override.

Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Betz said the primary reason is 2020 is a presidential election year with a crowded ballot.

She added some of the board members are up for election in 2020 and the district didn’t like to have a money-request on the same ballot.

Moreover, Superintendent Shane McCord said if the district was unsuccessful in getting the override passed in November, it would have another year to try.

The additional 5 percent would bring in an extra $9.3 million a year that the district proposed to spend on attracting and retaining quality teachers and staff at $7.1 million; hiring additional full-time social workers to staff all junior and elementary schools at $1.3 million; adding full-time mental health counselors at all the high schools at $550,000; and setting aside a 5 percent contingency for benefit increases at $550,000.

“As we hear about students in our district, in our community, our state and even the nation, teen and even pre-teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate,” Board President Reed Carr said.

“The Legislature this year passed a bill that has been signed that requires teachers to receive training to help identify signs of suicide and mental health,” Carr added. “We appreciate that teachers throughout the state and our district expressed support that they care about their students, they want to be able to identify that.”

That said, Carr added teachers are already stretched thin as they not only focus on academics but also students’ emotional and social needs.

He said he would love to say this issue belongs with the parents or religious or social groups but the truth is teachers are on the frontline.

“If they are going to use their training to be effective, we have to provide them the support,” Carr said. “It’s alarming to see what’s happening within our own district and community. I don’t like to add cost, especially non-classroom cost, but we also have to recognize need.”

There have been 33 teen suicides in Gilbert, Queen Creek, Mesa and Chandler since July 2017 and five more in adjacent communities.

Gov. Doug Ducey last week signed a law mandating suicide prevention training for all school personnel — even bus drivers — who deal with students in 6th through 8th grades.

Board member Sheila Rogers Uggetti said she believed in the value of social workers on campus “a million percent.”

She said she had one of the first social workers in the district many years ago when she was principal at Gilbert Elementary School.

“I believe students can’t learn until their social and emotional needs are met,” she said. “A full-time social worker at each school would make such a difference.”

Priorities for the $100 million bond include spending the bulk of it or $55.8 million for facility re-investment, which included roofs, air conditioning units, flooring and upgrade or addition of performing arts venues at the high schools.

Another $30 million would be spent on technology, including upgrades to switches, routers and wiring and $10 million for a district-wide security camera system.

While the bond is for $100 million, the district has $160-million worth of needs, according to Betz.

Wood asked if the district had to spend the entire $10 million if it finds out later it didn’t need the full amount.

Betz said if that were the case, the district can allow the remaining authority to sell bonds to expire.

District officials say if the bond passes residents won’t see a change in their secondary property tax because the new debt would simply replace old bond debt that is paid off.

However, if the $100 million bond fails, homeowners would see their property tax go down.

Carr said the district over the years has transferred money to the budget from every possible source.

“We’re trying to make sure we are using every available penny,” he said, noting efficiency measures taken such as cutting non-teaching positions.

He pointed to this year’s state Auditor General’s report that showed the school district’s operational efficiency was 61.1 percent, higher than its peer average of 56.8 percent.

Carr added the district receives roughly $1,100 less per student in funding than its peer districts.

“We have done what we can as a board,” he said. “If we are going to remain competitive and provide competitive salaries, yes, we got to address efficiency, got to push that 61 percent ever higher but we also have to have funds.

“That is the question that goes out to our parents, to our community members. If that is something they want, we are giving them the opportunity. If not, we will continue to do everything we can to be efficient, to put every dollar into the classroom.”