The Grand Canyon School Board approved a $3.5 million budget that will raise property taxes 32 percent to begin paying off hefty tax judgments.
The 2008-2009 school budget includes $47,448 in back taxes owed to Qwest and $135,427 owed to Delaware North, as well as $102,628 toward the more than $1 million owed to the county for the Xanterra debt. In all the budget includes $285,503 above maintenance and operating costs.
The Board also approved the option of a judgment bond sale to fund the remaining 90 percent of the nearly $944,000 owed to the county, which paid the Xanterra tax judgment.
"We only have two options - to go with the judgment bonds to pay it back or to levy the entire amount for one year," said Superintendent Sheila Breen.
Under state law, the county is not permitted to carry the debt, but school and community leaders were working with state lawmakers to change that. However, the bill didn't pass before the end of the legislative session. The bonds will have the same effect, allowing the district to space out payments over 10 years with an interest rate of around 5 percent.
The rate will be determined, in part, by how difficult it is to sell the bonds. Breen said that they have a triple-B rating because of the district's size and small tax base.
Board President Clarinda Vail asked why the district had pursued a legislative fix when the option of a judgment bond was available.
"The reason we went the legislative route is because it would have been a lot simpler just to have an agreement to pay the county back. They had already paid off the bill," Breen said. "You wouldn't have to go through the whole process of issuing bonds and the debt service that goes with that. This has always been our fallback position."
A community service requirement for graduation from high school was narrowly passed on a 3-2 vote,
with members Suzette Streit and Bess Foster opposed.
Starting next school year, to graduate seniors must have put in at least 40 hours of community service since ninth grade.
Breen said that they added a waiver process to the policy so that students with overwhelming circumstances can petition to be relieved of the requirement, first to the superintendent, then to the school board.
The policy also includes forms to present a project idea and report on finished projects.
"If they fill out their sheet ahead of time and it's approved ahead of time, everyone is on the same page," said Breen. "When they're done, they have to do their reflection and log sheet because that's how we're going to count that they've finished everything."
The policy and all forms will be included in the student handbook.
Foster asked if the district would notify parents about student progress in meeting the community service goal.
"I don't know how but I think that the parents should be informed of status of their hours so that parents are aware of where they're at," she said. "I've already heard from people - 'I had 15 hours, but I only got credit for 10.' I've already heard issues like that."
Breen said a notification policy will included in the handbook.
Streit also discussed the possibility of breaking down hours to a minimum of 10 per year to help students who come in to the district with one or two years left until graduation.
"I'm thinking about having some kind of language in there that makes it equitable for transfer students," she said.
Vail said that she felt the waiver process would cover that as one of many extenuating circumstances.
"Wouldn't that be answered with modification?" she asked.
"This is what will happen if that's in the handbook and they see that. Then students will say 'I've got my 10 hours for this year,'" said Head of School Becky Crumbo. "I think you're defining something rather than letting it be a natural outflow. The real thing we want to foster is that this project that could be one year of a big meaningful project where they do something that's not just getting 10 hours so that they met their requirements."
Foster said that regardless of how it's worded, she felt that students should only have to meet a requirement of 10 hours for each year they are enrolled here.
Breen said that transfer students weren't able to negotiate the credit requirements and Crumbo said that she had been called by other school districts who wanted to verify former students' service hours for transfer.
Streit asked about a phase-in process so that the full 40 hours wouldn't be required until 2012 but Breen disagreed.
"My feeling is that the kids have been told that this is an IB expectation. We've been working on it for four years. It's time to get serious," she said. "The reason why we're getting serious is because the kids are saying it's not going to make a difference if I don't do it. If you make it a requirement you will see a difference this year."
Breen reemphasized her position that 40 hours over four years was a minimal requirement given the amount of support provided by the school and the value of the service to the student.
"They should be able to do 40 hours a year," she said.
The Board held its second public hearing on proposed sex education curriculum. Breen said that one parent came to the office to examine the materials and that she's heard no other feedback. The middle and high school programs will be adopted at the August board meeting. They are available for review at the district office.
Crumbo reported that so far it looks like they will need just one kindergarten teacher though those numbers won't be firm until after formal registration next week.
"I've been hearing a lot that we may (need a second teacher) but I'm not seeing the evidence of it," she said. "I've asked Peggy (Russell-Haughton) to follow up on every rumor."
High School English teacher Katie Buttram will be MYP Coordinator. She will continue teaching half-time.
The Board approved a job description for a library aide. Breen said that the incoming aide, Karen Emetti, has reviewed the description as well. Emetti is a certified librarian who is willing to come into the aide position because of the school and location.
Breen shared her response to a letter from Gov. Janet Napolitano that went out to 130 Arizona schools who were spending more than 40 percent on items classified as non-classroom.
In her response, Breen said that she was "very discouraged" by the letter, adding, "The problem is not that we aren't spending enough money on kids, it's that we have faced a constant barrage of issues for the past five years that have resulted in significant reductions in funding. Also, the way that expenditures are categorized doesn't accurately reflect that a large percentage of M & O expenditures support classroom instruction, but some supports are indirect and, as such, don't 'count.'"
She noted that the district had spent more than $100,000 to train teachers, upgrade the library and implement the International Baccalaureate program; has strong extracurricular programs like Odyssey of the Mind and Hands Across the Border; averages a student-teacher ratio of 1:10; established busing for students in Valle and recently acquired 80 acres of Forest Service land.
She also outlined the financial challenges facing the district, including the burden on taxpayers due to tax judgments for park concessioners, a 20-percent increase in fuel and utility costs, a 75-percent cut in building renewal funds and the loss of $45,000 in Forest Fees.
"Given the lack of funding and support from our state and federal governments and businesses, the primary force that has kept this district together is a strong administration with a supportive governing board. We are fully supporting every student with every decision made, but many of these decisions don't 'count' under the definition of what is and is not 'classroom-related.' As one of my colleagues said, 'We are victims of our own success. Every year, superintendents in Arizona are asked to do more with less and we continue to do it.'"
She also provided a letter to state Attorney General Terry Goddard asking that his office establish a policy of informing school districts of any tax litigation or negotiations that may affect their budgets. Noting that the district was hit with a $47,000 repayment bill to Qwest, she wrote "...we were not notified of this potential liability in time to adequately plan for repayment. If we had been notified when settlement negotiations were started, we could have notified our taxpayers and possibly collected funds over two fiscal years to reduce the impact."
The Board approved payroll vouchers for $58,745.50 and $5,124.72 and accounts payable vouchers for $88,767.17 and $27,708.06.