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Wed, July 08

GC school readies for<br>another legislative battle<br>

The session of the Arizona state legislature proved to be a disappointing experience for the Grand Canyon Unified School District.

The failure of House Bill 2233 to get to a floor vote could cost the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars in the not-to-distant future. But there will be another attempt in the next session to get the legislation passed, and it appears it might be Grand Canyon’s last chance.

“It was a well-organized legislative initiative that lost out to special interests and we will implement the full coalition next year and add whatever other lobbying support to try to get it passed this coming year,” said Dr. Dale Fitzner, Grand Canyon School superintendent who was heavily involved with the bill.

The bill was an attempt to get enrollment caps raised for small school districts like Grand Canyon which have growing student populations. The district anticipates a need for a transitional period from its current small and rural status to regular status. Without a transition, there will be sudden, major budget losses, which could affect Grand Canyon’s current quality of education.

Currently, there’s an enrollment cap of 100 students at the high-school level and 125 at the elementary level. It’s at the high-school where Grand Canyon is battling that cap.

Although there was the expectation that the district would surpass the 100-student count this fall, Fitzner said the district will be OK with the intergovernmental agreement the district has with the Williams Unified School District.

“I think it’s imperative we pass that legislation this coming year,” Fitzner said. “We invite all local support to join us in that effort.”

The school actually had an overall enrollment drop when looking at the entire school. That is reflected in a .02-percent reduction in the recently-approved school budget.

But there are a couple of middle-school classes coming up which will push Grand Canyon over the 100-student count in 2001-02, and the IGA won’t be able to bail the district out.

“If legislation doesn’t pass next year, we could go into a phase-down situation if we exceed the 100,” Fitzner said. “Actually, nothing happens until 2002-03. That second year, we estimate the loss to be around $50,000.”

By 2003-04, there would be an approximate loss to the school budget of a half-million dollars, which represents the majority of the high-school budget.

Under Fitzner’s leadership this past year, the district put together an initiative to lobby Arizona legislators to pass the small-school legislation. A lobbying coalition was formed, led by Mike Smith of the Arizona Superintendents Association.

Other key people and organizations in the coalition included the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, Patrick Lennan of the Small and Rural Schools Association, Guillermo Zamudio of the St. David School District and Jim Hall of the McNary School District.

“Locally, we had a lot of local residents and businesses respond,” Fitzner said. “We also had local legislative support and involvement. I give full credit to school board members who wrote letters and e-mails urging passage of the legislation.”

Fitzner said Rob Arnberger and Pete Shearer were two names that stand out for local support, along with all the businessses and the local Rotary Club. And senators John Verkamp and John Wettaw were a positive influence.

The process began last November for the coalition and continued into the legislative session, which got under way in January.

HB2233 was introduced in the House Education Committee and after passing, it went to the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill encountered Sen. Robert Burns (now retired), who chaired the committee and wouldn’t allow the legislation to be considered. The bill was delayed there for some time.

Finally, it passed out of the committee but it was reworked and benefitted specifically only the McNary district.

Fitzner said Smith took it to the Senate Education Committee and Sen. John Hoopenthal had it resubmitted in its original state. Hoopenthal’s modifications put limits on the proposed transition from small to regular status for the schools.

The enrollment limits were raised to 250 students for both the high school and elementary school.

“Our coalition forced it to be a very acceptable modification and we submitted it to ATRA (Arizona Tax Researchers Association) to get their feedback,” Fitzner said. “It passed unanimously through the Senate Education Committee in March.”

It was then on to the Senate Rules Committee and the chairperson there would not allow it to be placed on the main agenda.

As a result, lobbyists attached it to another bill that was being considered by the full senate. But it got stripped off that bill by one of the sponsors. The legislative session then ended.

“The coalition feels that if brought to a vote in the full house and senate that it would pass,” Fitzner said.

Fitzner said the major obstacle standing in the legislation’s way continues to be ATRA, one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state.

ATRA, which is supported by utility industries, believes that small schools would take advantage of the fact that school boards can raise tax limit to secure necessary funding for the school, Fitzner said.

“That’s in place now,” Fitzner said. “But they believe that option that small-district school boards have could be interpreted differently and run the tax rate up too high for taxpayers.”

But Fitzner said that’s simply not the case.

“The coalition believes elected school-board officials have limitations and restrictions about uses of tax increases,” he said. “That’s the political process. Everything school boards do regarding taxation or expenditures has to be public information. There has been absolutely no exceptions we’re aware of of school boards exceeding their authority.”

Fitzner said ATRA’s support of candidates is a big incentive for votes to go their way. ATRA’s influence on committee chairpersons is especially powerful. As a result, those politicians put a lid on getting legislation through.

“And it’s not just us,” Fitzner said. “There were a lot of educational bills that didn’t get through. Because of the power they have to redirect legislation ... they even made it difficult for the governor to pass her initiative.”

Fitzner said the district is not starting over with the next session.

“We’re not starting from scratch,” he said. “We plan to deal more directly with ATRA challenges.”

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