Higley USD proposing $77.2M bond for November ballot

Tyler Moore
Higley USD Chief Financial Officer Tyler Moore details a $77.2 million proposal to the governing board. (Screen capture from YouTube)

Higley USD Chief Financial Officer Tyler Moore details a $77.2 million proposal to the governing board. (Screen capture from YouTube)

Higley USD staff presented to the governing board Feb. 9 a $77.2 million bond proposal, slimmed down from last fall’s $95 million proposal that voters rejected.

Notably absent from the reshaped proposal was the payoff of one of two middle school leases that district officials say create unique difficulties for HUSD’s budgets.

Chief Financial Officer Tyler Moore said the complexity of the leases without tangible benefits to the district, as other categories of spending have, work against approval of paying one off.

“I will note, since I was hired over a year ago, I knew about these leases,” Moore said. “In fact, it was and still is a well-known example of what not to do regarding public leases for either constructing buildings and/or purchasing buildings. ... Now it’s clear that the bond avenue is not the direction that we will be going, both because there is no support for that but because we want to be conscious of taxpayers as well.”

The district drew that conclusion from surveys about the 2021 bond, which failed by a 54%-46% margin, and a possible 2022 bond. But the conclusion was not readily accepted by the board members, who requested the district come back to them with information about what a separate bond question, one that would pay off a lease, would look like.

“We would be able to get more out of it financially by being able to pay this off,” Board Member Kristina Reese said. “I think the district would be financially better to be able to handle those major issues, maintenance, and not just major, but day-to-day [expenses].”

The district had $32 million in last year’s bond question earmarked to pay off one of the two leases on the district’s two middle schools, Cooley and Sossaman. The 40-year lease-purchase agreements were used to build the middle schools in Gilbert and Queen Creek. The schools opened in 2013.

Former district Superintendent Denise Birdwell was indicted in July on 18 felony counts related to the lease deals. Birdwell left the district in 2016, and no one involved at the time remains on the board, but Moore said Feb. 9 the district still is trying to “breach the Birdwell era.”

He said he could foresee the district trying again for a bond that would pay off a lease in about five years after the district has had a chance to restore trust with the community.

Instead, Moore said the district would explore other ways to lower its obligation to the lease holder, JBF Higley. He said the district is having an attorney review the lease to see what legal ways it could do so.

The 2022 bond proposal also drops a land purchase to build a new school in the growing northern part of the district and any transportation monies, both because of the lack of support on the survey.

Moore said the district would look to perhaps do a land swap with some land it currently owns to find some that would be more advantageous for building a new school where the district would soon need one.

The slimmed-down bond focuses on four areas that did garner community support on the survey:

  • technology, $19 million;

  • safety and security, $2.5 million;

  • major maintenance, $10.7 million; and

  • major capital projects, $45 million.

From the 2021 bond question, technology and safety and security were one category getting $15.5 million combined, while the district asked for $11 million for major maintenance and $27 million for major projects that would cover new buildings to address growth.

Moore noted that many people misunderstand what bonds can be used for. They cannot, for example, be used to increase teacher salaries.

Moore said he would bring back more information on a second bond question, one that would focus on lease payoff, at the next board meeting, along with a more detailed breakdown of the four bond categories and how the money would be spent. That meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23.
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.