EDUCATING STACY How schools spend your tax dollars
Arizona Daily Star
May 29, 2005
Wakefield Middle School eighth-grader Stacy Armenta, left, and Aileen Sanchez go over a homework assignment in Spanish class.

by Lindsay A. Miller

Stacy Armenta likes math and wants to be an architect when she grows up. She was born in California, raised in Mexico, and is still learning English, so she starts each day at Wakefield Middle School in a special reading class for Spanish speakers. But she excels in school - carrying a 4.0 grade point average and helping her classmates when she's done with her own work.

"I'm going to explain it to you so that you can understand it," she tells them.
Stacy represents the challenge and the hope of the Tucson Unified School District - Arizona's second-largest. She also represents the biggest share of the property tax bill for most homeowners - about 39 cents of every dollar for those living in TUSD. The owner of a $200,000 house in the district, whose property tax bill totals $2,821, is paying $1,100 to educate public-school children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The property tax is where much of the money comes from to educate Stacy and the other 58,200 students in TUSD, which stretches from River Road to Irvington Road and includes much of the Southwest Side. The district spent $406 million teaching, transporting, feeding and supplying them all. Most of the money comes from state government, in part through a special sales tax, and some from the federal government for students like Stacy from low-income households.
Most TUSD students started their summer vacation Wednesday, but Stacy is still in school, preparing for the jump to high school in August. Spend a day with her at Wakefield, near Interstate 10 and Sixth Avenue, and you'll learn how schools use your money - and what you get for it.
- Margo Hernandez
Educating Stacy
Tucson Unified School District spent about $400 million to educate eighth-grader Stacy Armenta and 58,200 other students in 2003-04. We followed Stacy through her day at Wakefield Middle School to show you where your money goes.
Title I funds
An estimated 60 percent of the students in TUSD come from households poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which triggers their eligibility for another special aid program. It's called Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a cornerstone of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."
At Wakefield, known as a community school and drawing much of its enrollment from low-income neighborhoods in the immediate area, more than 90 percent of students are eligible for Title I.
TUSD received $15.1 million in Title I money during the 2003-04 school year, which was distributed to students at more than 30 of its 122 schools. In 2004-05, Wakefield received $550,000 in Title I money.
Schools have discretion in the use of the federal money. Carmen Kemery, in her first year as Wakefield principal, said the money has been used there for teacher training in math and science, materials, and hiring seven staff members - some to help reduce class size and two to act as liaisons with families and the community.
Still, even with this help, Wakefield has a higher student-teacher ratio than the TUSD average - 23-to-1 compared with 21-to-1.
Elsewhere in the district, Title I money supports 22 preschool programs preparing children for kindergarten.
Wakefield gets other extra money through the district, too, because of its poor performance on the math portion of the state's AIMs test. The percentage of students passing has been in the single digits. The money pays for a coach who provides what Kemery called "intensive professional development" for math teachers.
As a community school, Wakefield does not participate in TUSD's desegregation efforts, which were ordered by a federal court because of imbalances in the racial makeup of it schools. TUSD spends $55.77 million a year - 13.5 percent of its budget - trying to comply with the court order. A ruling Tuesday that lifts the desegregation order against Phoenix Union high schools leaves TUSD as the only district in the state operating under such an order.
The busiest person at Wakefield is Principal Carmen Kemery. Kemery takes charge of everything from instruction to parent complaints as head of the school. She knows students by name and can tell you about the teaching style of teachers on her staff.
If you can find her in her office, she's probably on the phone. And if she's not in her office, the only way to find her is through the walky-talky that she carries throughout the school.
Kemery is in her first year as principal at Wakefield. She has more than 40 years' experience as administrator and educator and has worked as principal or assistant principal at all levels in the district.
At middle-school level, the average salary for a principal is $79,594. Benefits push that to $93,971.
All told, administrative costs at TUSD amounted to 10.3 percent of the district's budget in 2003-04. That's higher than the statewide average of 9.5 percent.
Kemery, like much of the Wakefield staff, is comfortable speaking English and Spanish. Her native Spanish amounts to a job requirement as she works to make sure students achieve their potential and parents remain involved in a school where 93.5 percent of the students are Hispanic.
Stacy got a lesson in adjectives this day from Armida McKenna, a reading teacher at Wakefield Middle School, and lessons from other teachers in math, Spanish and science. As in many workplaces, their salary and benefits represent the lion's share of spending on public education - more than 90 percent of the budget in TUSD.
From Stacy's perspective, teachers put up with more here than she is accustomed to seeing. Students are "more respectful in Mexico," she said. Stacy, who at 15 is older than her classmates, moved to Tucson 14 months ago.
At the same time, she believes the instruction is more personal here and she is learning more from teachers - in mathematics, for example, where her teacher is Elaine Ruiz. "Here, they show you more things," she said. "Mathematics (is) at a higher level than in Mexico."
TUSD is No. 6 on the list of top employers in Southern Arizona with 7,684 employees and a payroll of $293 million, according to the Star 200, published by the newspaper each February. A distant second among county school districts is Sunnyside with 2,223 employees.
More than 3,300 of the TUSD employees are certified teachers like McKenna and Ruiz. This year, they received a 2.5 percent raise, and their average compensation - salary and benefits - totals $49,294.
Average experience among teachers districtwide is 9.8 years and 11 years at Wakefield.
Like many people in the modern world, Stacy begins and ends her day in front of a computer.
Computers are no longer a luxury but a tool that's central to the way many subjects are taught in TUSD. In addition, classes are offered in computer proficiency. The district spent $7.71 million on computers and telecommunications technology in 2003-04, nearly 3 percent of its budget. Of that, $6.5 million went directly to schools in the form of hardware, software, salaries and maintenance.
This day, Stacy heads to the library to join a group of classmates who stay with her most of the day - English-language learners like her. Eleven of them are here to start today's reading lesson: translate personal essays from Spanish to English.
After working with their teacher, the students adjourn to a bank of a dozen computers that line a table near the checkout desk. They work quietly amid the vaulted ceilings and high, arch-topped windows of this spacious room - part of a restored stucco-walled, tile-roofed school complex built in 1939 and named for a pioneer woman educator.
At the end of the day, these students pile into a regular-sized classroom for a more chaotic computer experience. Dozens of students from two classrooms click away at keyboards before rows and rows of monitors. Stacy and her classmates use the time to pick up where they left off on the reading essays. Stacy's is about her dreams of a career in architecture.
Stacy walks to school every day because she lives nearby. And because it is a community school, almost all Wakefield students walk to school.
But TUSD is a big district - at 225 square miles, it is ranked around 50th in the nation in area. Getting around it requires big expenses for transportation. Transportation in the district employed more than 700 people and cost more than $18 million in 2003-04.
That's 4.5 percent of TUSD's budget, higher than the state average of 4 percent.
About 300 district buses logged more than 4.6 million miles last year for everyday school transportation, field trips, athletics and special education. The department provides more than 5 million individual r ides per year.