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Mon, Jan. 20

Key school legislation<br>introduced in House

GCNP — The bumpy ride through the Arizona Legislature has pulled away from the curb for Grand Canyon School. State Rep. Linda Gray (R-Phoenix) introduced House Bill 2183 earlier this month in what will be a key piece of legislation for students, parents and teachers at Grand Canyon.

"If the legislature doesn't change and our high-school enrollment exceeds 100, the school district would eventually lose over half its budget," Grand Canyon School superintendent Dale Fitzner said. "That would reduce the high school to not more than four teachers. We're at nine right now."

That's just one of the dark scenarios looming in Grand Canyon's future if House Bill 2183 does not end up on the governor's desk with a signature. The high school will likely surpass the 100-student cap next year when a small senior class graduates and a large eighth-grade class becomes freshmen.

Fitzner said the legislation would allow the district to do two things:

• Conduct an override election for either the high school and/or elementary school and with voter approval, more funding would be available for tax overrides than what is currently allowed.

• Allow a budgetary transition from 100 to 200 students utilizing a per-pupil formula. When 200 students is reached, the district would then have urban school status.

"It balances out because you have that specially-weighted student count diminishing to 200," Fitzner said. "You've got this very comprehensive program in place, still have that budget level to work with as you gain students. It's a real win-win situation for us and the taxpayers."

The override capacity is currently limited under current state statute. If the legislation fails, the school district could hold an override election to create more funds, but there's a maximum, which would still come in significantly short of high-school budget needs.

Gray, who is the chairperson of the House Education Committee, is sponsoring HB2183. Her position on the committee is a cause for optimism for Fitzner.

"We need support from the community, which they can provide by writing the house legislators on the House Education Committee," Fitzner said. "Our plans are to also engage help for the lobbyist team."

For e-mail addresses and phone numbers of those on the House Education Committee, see the graphic at right.

Earlier this month, the Grand Canyon School Board approved the hiring of Sam Polito, a lobbyist with strong educational ties. Early last week, the board met in special session to approve the hiring of Ed Wren, a lobbyist with a successful track record working with large associations, such as those in the fire, police and hotel industries.

"We're doing a purchase order for $5,000 each and asking other small schools to contribute," Fitzner said. "We have interest from a few schools. I do have at least three school districts that indicated an interest."

Those interested schools would need to seek approval from their respective school boards. Wren carries a full pricetag of $10,000 while Polito's price is $9,000. That's $9,000 the school district needs to find to pay for their services.

The district could not pay more than $5,000 per lobbyist without going out to bid.

Mike Smith of the Arizona School Boards Association is the point man on the legislative team. Others on the lobbyist team include Barbara Robey and Sandra Junck, who lists schools as one of her specialities.

Fitzner is confident about the bill's chances for passage this year. But what if things do not turn out as expected again this time around?

As the superintendent said, even with an override, funds for the high-school budget would come up short.

"We would have to reduce programs and staff," Fitzner said. "We would expect to lose North Central Accreditation as a result. That would be negative for the students because it makes obtaining scholarships very difficult."

The legislation will also be introduced in the Senate, Fitzner said, by Sen. John Verkamp (R-Flagstaff). As of the newspaper's deadline, a Senate Bill number had not been assigned. This tactic allows the legislation to go through both the Senate and House and if blocked in one, it could keep going in the other.

"I think this will really speed up the process so we know where we stand," Fitzner said. "I think the chances are really good. I don't know what obstacles lie ahead."

If the bill proceeds through the various committees, it would then be voted on by the full legislature. Passage there would put the bill on the governor's desk for her signature or veto.

Last year's attempt at getting the legislation passed took a bad turn in the final week's of the session. HB2233 got stuck in the House Rules Committee.

"It kept moving until it was required to get attached to another education bill and it didn't make it," Fitzner said. "This year, we've started earlier and we're working on both branches. We have more community involvement and more lobbyists working on it."

Fitzner and others associated with the bill were pleased to see how elections went last November. The superintendent said some former legislators no longer in the picture had been influenced by the Arizona Tax Researchers Associa-tion, a powerful lobbying group opposing the small-schools status legislation.

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