Up against a wall, again: Peoria Unified will likely consider another ballot measure for 2020


The recent Peoria Unified School District override may have failed by only 133 votes, but it is part of a string of funding defeats at the ballot box the last few years that will likely leave some schools in disrepair and push the district to start cutting programs, experts say.

Ballot measures such as bonds and overrides are often needed to provide funds to schools above what the state provides. Bonds fund capital projects and overrides fund programs and people.

Looking to the future, funding is about to run dry from the district’s last bond authorization, approved by voters in 2012.

 CFO Michelle Myers said the district has just under $25 million left from that $180 million bond.

Bonds  are  loans  made  to  the  school  district which are  used  to  purchase  capital  items  and/or  make  capital  improvements  to  existing  facilities,  such  as  building  or  renovating  a  school or purchasing  school  buses. 

A bond authorization is in place for 10 years, and bond proceeds from a bond sale need to be expended within three years of the sale date.

Ms. Myers said the district’s last bond sale of the 2012 bond election came in July, fully utilizing the remaining bond authorization. 

As funds have tightened due to the failure of a $189 bond in 2018 and a $198 million bond in 2016, the district has launched a facility utilization and capacity study that will help district officials prioritize needs related to the remaining bond dollars as well as needs for future bond authorizations, Ms. Myers said.

The study will be published in early 2020.

“At this time there are no additional bond sales on the horizon,” Ms. Myers said. “We have some fairly finite remaining bond dollars now and so we are  being very careful how we expend those dollars.”

Class sizes will increase and the ability to offer programs such as arts, music, physical education and gifted education programs will be threatened, officials say.

The future could bring a charge for full-day kindergarten, and fees related to athletic and extracurricular activities could significantly increase with such programing likely to be reduced, district officials stated.

Cuts could also reduce safety at campuses across the district, according to the PUSD website.

Matthew Bullock, Support Peoria Students PAC chairman and former PUSD governing board president, said the school district is now faced with two large financial needs that must be addressed within the next year:  a bond to build a new school in the Vistancia area and to repair schools in the central and southern part of the district, as well as an override again, needed to fund kindergarten and compensate health care professionals and assistant principals.

Parents will see reduced staff at their local school and heavily increased participation fees for sports, band, arts and other programs, he said.

“Opposition to the override pointed out that the district should live with the money it gets and not need an override. What they don’t know is that the district lost $208 million in funding between 2009 and 2016. We are still playing catch-up for those years of slow economic growth in our state,” he said.

“If everyone learned just a little bit about what the schools actually receive each year, the override would have passed by a landslide.”

The current 13% maintenance and operations override was approved in November 2015 and went into effect in July 2016. An override is in place for seven years, but if it is not renewed by the voters, additional funding will be eliminated.

With the PUSD override in its fourth year, the district has the opportunity for a second and final chance at an override before $26 million will be cut annually starting in 2021, resulting in pay cuts for all staff members and layoffs for all health care professionals and assistant principals.

Melissa Girmscheid, a Centennial High School teacher and an education advocate, said the district will not be able to move forward without making cuts to programs.

An Auditor General’s report showed PUSD already operates with a smaller per-pupil administration cost than the state average, despite being the fourth largest district in the state. She said operating such a large district requires a large team, and cutting team members means the rest have to pick up the slack.

As is, the administration budget, which covers more than just administrators, is such a small portion of the overall budget that cuts there will not yield the $27 million currently funded by the 13% override, she said.

“I would love to say that students will not be affected by these cuts, but there simply is no way to make this happen. Cuts in district administration, for example, mean a greater workload for site administrators and a loss of valuable time in classrooms and at student activities,” Ms. Girmscheid said.

“Cutting programs makes more financial sense as these are larger chunks of our current budget, but it also means a direct impact on our 37,000 students. I do not envy our budget committee as they determine how to best trim a budget without removing the reason children attend school.”

Only the PUSD governing board has the authority to approve a bond or override measure for the ballot.

To begin this process the board would need to call for a Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which would research the needs to be funded by a bond or override. Residents who live within the district are eligible to be members of PUSD committees.

Ms. Girmscheid said the governing board will undoubtedly reconvene the citizens’ bond and override committee this coming year and ask them to review information to determine if the board will put a bond, override, or both on the 2020 ballot.

“It would be very helpful for our community, especially the parents of our students, to be a part of this process,” she said.

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.