Earlier this month Arizona Auditor General Lindsey Perry published a financial risk analysis of the state’s 207 public school districts, which showed dozens of districts rank at high-risk in one or more of 10 areas of review.
But only six districts finished the review with a designation of “highest risk,” according to Perry’s office. Those districts are Double Adobe Elementary, Elfrida Elementary School District, Flagstaff Unified, Isaac Elementary, Safford Unified, and Wenden Elementary.
Elfrida Elementary is a one-school district in Cochise County which ranked high-risk in 8 of the 10 categories. The district, which had 101 students in Fiscal Year 2020 but only 84 in FY2021, was also on the highest-risk list last year, according to the inspector general.
In response, district officials noted several aspects of the financial risk areas have improved in recent months, albeit not enough to get removed from high-risk status.
“There was a limited possibility that the school was going to be able to get out of all the high risk areas during the year,” the district’s response stated. “However, the COVID relief monies have made quite an impact in the school both budgetary wise and infrastructure wise.”
District officials have used their COVID relief monies in a variety of ways, including spending more than $290,000 for salaries, technology purchases to improve 1:1 computer ratios, and repairs to HVAC systems. Monies were also spent for public health items such as plexiglass, masks, and cleaning supplies. Additional expenditures included an outside cleaning company and a staff aide to help with health scanning of students riding the bus.
Another improvement, according to public records, was addressing the district’s loss of its credit line. As a result, Elfrida Elementary District is now on registered warrant status. In February 2021, the amount was $164,031, but by early November 2021 there were no registered warrants.
“We are striving to not have a registered warrant status at the end of FY2022 by ensuring that the district calls down grant monies monthly and that we do not spend more money than our revenues allow,” the district told the auditor general.
District officials also entered into a food service agreement with the local high school, and a superintendent sharing agreement with another elementary school district. A full-time teacher position with benefits was not filled; instead, a long-term substitute without benefits has been utilized at a savings of nearly $20,000.
The audit report further noted Elfrida Elementary District’s primary property tax rate has been frozen since FY 2014, although district officials had not adjusted its budget to stay within the revenue it would generate based on its frozen tax rate. And the report pointed out that COVID-19 funding is short termed.
“As these are one-time monies, to avoid future financial risk and to ensure it will be able to spend within its available cash resources and budget capacity when these relief monies are no longer available to spend after September 30, 2024, the District should plan how it will adjust its spending in areas where its remaining monies are used,” the report noted.
While Elfrida Elementary ranked at high-risk in 8 categories, Antelope Union High School District in Yuma County hit that designation in only 4 of the 10 categories. Which is one reason the district fell off the highest-risk list from last year, according to the auditor general.
But Perry’s office warns Antelope Union’s data indicates “it could move back in to the highest-risk group in the future” if it does not continue to make progress.
Among the improvements made by Antelope Union officials was a tax levy and a General Fund spending reduction. The district was also aided by COVID-19 federal relief monies, more than $160,000 of which went toward operational experiences through June 30, 2021.
District officials have told auditors they plan to use its remaining relief money for non-operational purposes. In the meantime, the auditor general is recommending Antelope Union begin formulating a spending plan sooner than later, as COVID-19 funds dry up in 2024.
However, another problem is facing Antelope Union High School District’s finances.
Last June, Perry’s office notified the State Board of Education about accounting and bookkeeping problems with Antelope Union. As a result, the Board deemed Antelope Union in noncompliance with the Uniform System of Financial Records for Arizona School Districts (USFR) due to deficiencies dating back to June 2018.
This means the district is not receiving certain state monies. Which once lost, stay lost.
“The District will remain in noncompliance until cleared by the State Board of Education,” Cristan Cable, Director of the Auditor General’s accountability services division, told AZ Free News.
Cable explained that Antelope Union cannot be cleared by the Board until auditors determine the cited deficiencies have been resolved. Those deficiencies were first brought to the attention of the Antelope Union governing board back in 2019. At the time, a corrective action place was provided to district officials but there is much work remaining.
“The State Board of Education will reconsider the District’s noncompliance when we are able to report to the Board that the District has addressed its deficiencies either based on our subsequent review at the request of the State Board of Education or based on our review of the District’s fiscal year 2022 or a later financial and compliance audit performed by the District’s independent auditors,” Cable said.
Nearly 300 Afghan refugees are being relocated to a former hotel in Scottsdale after being housed at various military installations, resulting in the mobilization of a Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) team “to plan for providing educational services and support” to any school-aged refugees, according to Superintendent Scott Menzel.
SUSD “has an obligation to provide educational services to homeless students who reside within the district,” Menzel noted in a district newsletter. That obligation is based on compliance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
“While we did not anticipate this influx of new students, we are committed to marshalling the resources and supports necessary to ensure that these children are welcomed into our schools as they transition to their news lives in this country,” he wrote.
The newsletter comments also referenced questions raised by some in the community about whether the district should be serving the refuge children. Instead of addressing public health, staffing, and security concerns, Menzel simply cited federal law as leaving the district no option.
Although Menzel’s comments were included in the recent newsletter, there has been nothing posted to SUSD’s Facebook page. In addition, district officials have not disclosed what conversations they have had with state and federal officials about compensation for the sudden influx of non-English speaking students.
More information is expected to be made public on Jan. 25 when the SUSD governing board meets.
Last August, Gov. Doug Ducey stated that Afghan refugees will be welcomed in Arizona. He noted that the Arizona Department of Economic Security, through its Arizona Office of Refugee Resettlement, would help secure housing, employment, and education for the refugees.
The refugees are being housed at the former Homewood Suites on North Scottsdale Road. The property is currently in bankruptcy but was approved by federal officials in early 2021 as a contracted temporary migrant transition facility.
There was no advance notice to Scottsdale city officials about the migrant arrangement last year. That contract expired at the year of 2021, but now the non-profit International Rescue Committee (IRC) is utilizing the massive hotel property for the next few months as temporary housing while efforts are undertaken to place each refuge or refugee family unit in homes with sponsors in the greater Phoenix area.
Some refugees began arriving at the Homewood Suites before Jan. 14. According to Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther, “next to no one was aware” that the property was being repurposed.
Walther issued an advisory to Mayor David Ortega and council members before Menzel’s comments, noting there was no heads up to local authorities about the IRC’s plans to house unsupervised Afghan refugees within the city.
The IRC has now told city officials that the site is expected to use only through April. As far as security, IRC plans to hire security guards but made it clear that the refugees are free to come and go as they wish.
Security was not in place prior to the arrival of the first group of refugees, Walther noted. The refugees are expected to be gone from the hotel property by April, according to Walther.
“This is a federal government activity over which the city of Scottsdale has no oversight,” a city spokesperson recently told AZ Free News.
While Menzel was reticent about the situation, one of his school principal’s issued a detailed email to Cherokee Elementary staff. He reported that more than 80 school-aged refugees are expected to be enrolled across three, possibly four, SUSD schools.
Those students, according to Principal Walter Chantler, could speak one of four languages. And many of the youth, particularly the girls, have never been in school.
Several state lawmakers spent last Wednesday afternoon attending the 2022 Arizona Farm Bureau AgFest on the lawn of the House of Representatives.
The Arizona Farm Bureau is the state’s largest farm and ranch organization, and serves as the industry’s voice. The Jan. 19 event showcased the state’s $23.3 billion agriculture industry to legislators.
Among those attending was Sen. Sine Kerr, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water.
Kerr is no stranger to the Ag business. She grew up in rural Buckeye and with her husband now owns a large dairy farm.
“Agriculture is essential to Arizona’s prosperity,” Kerr said at the event. “We all depend on the work our ranchers and farmer are doing for our state and country, and I will do my absolute best to always advocate for them at the state legislature.”
Some of the other lawmakers who attended AgFest were House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, as well as Reps. Leo Biasiucci, Frank Carroll, David Cook, and Joel John. Senate President Karen Fann was also on hand, as well as Sen. TJ Shope.
Members of the University of Arizona Collegiate Young Farmers and Ranchers, which has its own Arizona Farm Bureau chapter, also took part in the event.
In other Arizona Farm Bureau news, it was announced earlier this month that the organization earned the American Farm Bureau Federation’s New Horizon Award, which honors the most innovative new state Farm Bureau programs.
The New Horizon Award recognized the Arizona Farm Bureau’s partnership with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service last year to launch a conservation agriculture mentoring program. Stefanie Smallhouse, president of Arizona Farm Bureau, accepted the award during the Federation’s annual convention in Georgia.
Arizona Farm Bureau also won in all four Awards of Excellence categories for demonstrating outstanding achievements in Advocacy, Coalitions & Partnerships, Engagement & Outreach, and Leadership & Business Development.
Several critical water infrastructure projects will move forward across Arizona, funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
Nearly a dozen projects throughout the state will be funded as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2022 Spend Plan. The $18.5 million in funding was signed into law last November by President Joe Biden, although the authority for the water infrastructure projects in Arizona tracks back to the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 signed by then-President Donald Trump.
The funds are intended for projects to help small, rural, and tribal communities across the state meet their water and wastewater infrastructure needs. Under the authority, federal funds cover 75 percent of a project’s total cost and go towards assisting with design and construction.
The first project to be funded under the authority is already under way—a critical water pipeline for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. The $578,000 pipeline project will boost water security for the community and support future growth in the area, according to supporters.
Other projects in Arizona to be funded under the Corps’ 2022 Spend Plan include:
$3.5 million for construction of a waterline in the city of Maricopa
$3 million for construction of a new wastewater treatment system for the Middle Verde District of the Yavapai-Apache Nation
$2.25 million to make wastewater treatment plant improvements in Buckeye
$2.25 million to install backup generators for Pima County’s water reclamation facility
$2.25 million to install reclaimed water pipeline and rehabilitate existing infiltration gallery at the Queen Creek Restoration Project in Superior
$1.5 million to construct the WF Killip Elementary School Regional Flood Detention basin in Flagstaff to mitigate post-fire flooding
$1.2 million to continue construction of Flagstaff Downtown Flood Lateral Tunnel to provide flood protection
$1.155 million to make improvements to the water filtration treatment plant in Kearny
$772,500 for water system improvements in Quartzite
A separate water infrastructure plan being funded through the Corps will provide $65.7 million to complete a flood control project for the Little Colorado River. The project consists of new and reconstructed levees which will protect the community of Winslow and other areas of Navajo County.
The current levee system is in danger of overtopping or failing in a 100-year flood event. This places nearly 1,600 structures—including almost all of the community’s critical public facilities such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and utilities—at risk.
A new report released by the taxpayer-watchdog group Goldwater Institute is calling on the Arizona Legislature to address the use of public money by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns for purposes which go against the public’s interest.
“Taxpayer-Funded League Lobbies Against Taxpayer Interests,” the report by Jon Riches and Jenna Bentley, details the use of taxpayer funds by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns in ways which represent the interests of public officials and government bureaucrats rather than the interests of the taxpaying public.
“The League uses taxpayer dollars to help fund its political efforts, frequently lobbying in favor of or against proposed legislation at the Arizona Legislature,” according to Riches, the Goldwater Institute Director of National Litigation, and Bentley, the Goldwater Institute Director of Government Affairs. “While the League supports and opposes bills sponsored by members of both political parties, its agenda is decidedly anti-freedom, pro-government, and partisan.”
The situation can easily be addressed if state lawmakers approve three reforms, the report states.
“It is time to protect taxpayers by prohibiting taxpayer-funded lobbying activities while also increasing transparency and accountability when local governments advocate at the legislature through membership organization,” Riches and Bentley assert.
To start, the report recommends extending the current ban enacted in 2017 on using taxpayer funds to pay for lobbyists who represent the state government. The ban should also apply to local government governments and the League, Riches and Bentley propose.
“Cities and towns could still voluntarily join together to discuss issues of mutual concern—but do so without expending taxpayer resources on lobbying,” they say.
Then, there needs to be state legislation passed to address the disproportionate rate of dues paid to the League by smaller municipalities. This occurs because overall dues are capped for Arizona’s larger cities, resulting in a higher per capita rate for citizens of smaller communities.
“Residents of small cities and towns should not bear a disproportionate burden in financing the League and its activities,” the report states. “After all, larger cities receive the same services from the League that smaller cities do.”
The third recommendation put forth by Riches and Bentley calls on lawmakers to ensure better transparency by the League, which is a nonprofit organization comprised exclusively of local governments. In fact, more than a dozen League employees are currently active in the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) and several retired League employees receive ASRS pensions.
“League employees themselves are technically private employees, but in many ways they enjoy the benefits of government employment,” the report notes. “Given that the League’s membership is comprised solely of public bodies and its employees receive government perks, one would expect the League to be subject to the same transparency and accountability measures that apply to other public entities.”
These reforms, according to Riches and Bentley, would go a long way toward ensuring tax dollars are used to advance the public’s business, not to amplify the voice of special interest lobbyists.
“The Arizona Legislature can protect municipal taxpayers from the abuses that occur when local governments use taxpayer resources to lobby state government and blur the line between public and private activities,” the report recommends. “It is time to protect taxpayers by prohibiting taxpayer-funded lobbying activities while also increasing transparency and accountability when local governments advocate at the legislature through membership organizations.”