Property tax increase raises questions following state audit

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PHOENIX -- A state audit, released in early October, raises questions as to whether mistakes at Roosevelt School District are being passed down to taxpayers. The worst result of the audit: Not enough instructional hours. That alone could cost the district $832,000.

Add $75,000 more for having ineligible students enrolled in the English Language Learners program, and the audit found the district was overpaid nearly a million dollars by the state between 2006 and 2008.

"I'm appalled by it," district resident Irma Morena said.

Taxpayers want to know if the district's debt is now being passed down to them in the form of a 75 percent property tax increase.

"The audit has cost taxpayers zero dollars at this time," Superintendent Mary Beyda stated.

Beyda, who only recently took the job, says state budget problems and a decrease in tax collections, mostly due to foreclosures, are the reasons property taxes have gone up.

She says it has nothing to do with the district's alleged money problems, but homeowners like Michael Davis say the math isn't adding up.

"This is a wake-up call that our money is not being spent appropriately," Davis said.

Davis recently closed on his dream home near South Mountain. 3 On Your Side introduced you to him in mid-October after he noticed a $1,400 increase in his property tax bill.

"It leads me to believe there is some horrendous mismanagement," Davis said. "There has to be."

Davis says he's one of many neighbors wanting to know how it's possible for a school district to increase property taxes so dramatically, without any warning.

Dozens of residents turned out for a recent Roosevelt school board meeting with similar questions.

"Where is that money going?" Moreno asked.

“At least preliminarily, we know the district has waste, we know the district's audit has come out bad, bad enough to cost them $1.5 million that was passed on to the voters of this district,” District Rep. Ben Miranda said.

Miranda says his constituents are demanding answers. But he says it's difficult to defend a district plagued with financial problems that goes out and hires a consulting firm to restore its image.

Outside the board meeting, in front of our cameras, Miranda asked how much money the district is spending on outside P.R.

According to Jerry Duff, a partner in the P.R. firm, $20,000 has been spent, but $90,000 has been allocated for the job.

3 On Your Side asked Beyda whether the district thought it was in a position to spend $90,000 on a P.R. firm.

“I feel public relations is absolutely essential today in our public schools,” Beyda explained.

As for the amount of taxes now being levied on property owners, Beyda vehemently denies the increase is a result of the district's debt, adding Roosevelt is expecting $13 million in state funding on Nov. 2.

Once that arrives, she says property owners who've overpaid for taxes will actually get a refund.

“At this point where we are with this tax audit at this time, we are appealing it, there have been no fines levied against the Roosevelt district, and that has no effect on the taxes whatsoever,” Beyda said.

The audit also raises questions about an estimated $30,000 in unauthorized cell phone use and $28,000 in missing equipment.  The district says it has made several policy changes, including eliminating cell phones.  

So who decides how much your property taxes will go up?  Ultimately, we're told it's the school board's job to determine how much money a district can ask for property taxes.

The Roosevelt District is appealing the audit. To read the entire audit click here: http://www.ade.az.gov/Busfin/audit/Roosevelt-FINAL-SIGNED.pdf