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Retirees Hold Upper Hand in Bitter Clash Over Taxes for Suburb's Schools

Arizona: Budget cuts and program reductions plague Phoenix suburbs. Residents of Sun City West have defeated several attempts to raise property levies and are considering pulling out of the district.


EL MIRAGE, Ariz. — Students in three of Alicia Alonzo's classes at Dysart High School don't have any books. Teachers lecture to overcrowded classrooms from a single text.

"It makes it really hard to learn," the 18-year-old senior says.

There are other signs of a money crisis in this 4,300-student school district in Phoenix's far northwest suburbs.

Teachers haven't had a raise in six years. Music, art, physical education and school health programs have been eliminated or drastically reduced in response to $1.5 million in budget cuts. Test scores have slid to about half the state and national averages.

And students and parents worry that the financial problems are just beginning.

The district is involved in a battle between retirees who object to Dysart's property taxes and parents pushing for more and better schools for the growing low-income Latino student population.

So far, the retirees are winning.

More than a decade ago, retirement communities in Sun City and Sun City West pulled out of the Dysart Unified School District, taking a bite out of the district's property-tax base.

Since then, retirees in a Sun City West neighborhood that remains in the district have organized and successfully defeated several proposals to raise property taxes and generate more school funding.

Then, earlier this month, three leaders of that anti-tax group won control of the five-member Dysart school board.

Now they're urging a district vote next spring on whether to pull the rest of Sun City West and other retirement communities out of the district--a move that would eliminate their jobs and cut Dysart's property-tax base by more than a third, Supt. Jesus de la Garza says.

To students, the anti-tax drives, the school board election and the de-annexation proposal all add insult to injury.

"They have made a big ol' stink about their taxes, but the fact that students didn't have any books never came up," says Alonzo, editor of the student newspaper, the Dysart Imprint.

"They're just so stingy!" she continues. "Heaven forbid someone could decide not to pay them their Social Security. . . . But they don't want to pay to help our future."

The new board members bristle at such criticism. They note that they pay up to three times as much property tax as residents of areas that pulled out of the district years ago.

"This business about us being greedy, that's a lot of crap," says Robert F. Koch, one of the three new board members.

"We are not opposed to school taxes, but we do not want to pay three times as much taxes as other people similarly situated. That's un-American. It's just not right."

He and the two other new school board members live in Sun City West, a retirement community with golf courses where one resident of each home must be over 55.

The board members' homes have assessed values ranging from $114,000 to $151,000, meaning their yearly school property-tax bills are between $750 and $1,050.

Koch concedes his property taxes now are lower than they were in Maryland during his 29-year career as a government lawyer in Washington.

But he still wants out of the Dysart district.

"Maybe de-annexation is the only recourse for citizens like us who are being grossly discriminated against in the degree of taxation," Koch says.

Others say the district's children should not be penalized because some Sun City West residents pay more taxes than others. If the de-annexation measure passes, the district's construction-debt ceiling will drop from $22.3 million to $7.6 million, de la Garza said.

"You can build an elementary school for between $6 million and $8 million," the superintendent said. "We would be reduced to [building and paying off] one school at a time."

The district has filed a lawsuit to block the March de-annexation vote. If the measure passes, the three new board members would automatically be removed from their posts.

Dysart's financial problems may have more to do with mismanagement than with voters' defeat of tax hikes, Koch says. The district gets the same amount of state funding per student no matter what the local property-tax rate is, he says.

De la Garza said there's nowhere left to cut. District secretaries are the lowest-paid in the county, for example, and many teachers have left in recent years because of low salaries, he said.

"I don't know how much more conservatively the district could have been run, fiscally speaking," de la Garza said.

The new board members insist they want the students to get a good education.

"I taught. I don't want to hurt the kids. I don't want to hurt their families at all," said board member Rose Parker, a retired Los Angeles teacher.

Some students say they have a hard time believing that.

"A lot of students are skeptical about it, but another part wants to give them a chance," says Linda Alvorado, 16. "They, like me, hope that they came in to do good for the school."

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