Mayor Tom Schoaf Mayor Jenn Daniels

Litchfield Park Mayor Tom Schoaf and Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels discuss education at a recent Scottsdale roundtable.

A recent Scottsdale roundtable ostensibly focused on the future of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries, with Goodyear as a shining example.

 Yet the discussion quickly went offline, as Litchfield Park Mayor Tom Schoaf and others called for public education overhauls.

“I probably would start by having the United States Congress, the federal government absolutely stay out of education entirely,” Schoaf said.

Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels also argued for the dismantling of the current education system and rebuilding it to reflect the needs of an evolving workforce.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said he would support the mission “to get rid of the Department of Education and get the federal government out of this because it’s politicized it, (and) it’s pocketed the money for things that are politically directed and not necessarily to the education case.”

The mayors’ comments came at the inaugural mayoral roundtable at the Arizona STEM & Innovation Summit in Scottsdale Sept. 17.

Perhaps the best example of the tech windfall is Goodyear, which has seen a rush of recent investment from tech firms. Microsoft has purchased hundreds of acres in the Goodyear for data centers.

Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord credited the recent investment by tech firms to years of planning and investment in infrastructure.

“We have been preparing for this time for a long time … it’s really something and you just look around and you have all this land and it never comes, never comes, and then all of a sudden somebody threw flower seed over Goodyear and it is popping up all over,” Lord said.

Other Valley cities have seen significant investment as well.

Last year, a global consulting firm Deloitte signed a development deal with Gilbert to open up a center to service its technology clients that could result in 2,500 new jobs, including 1,500 over the next 10 years.

In Scottsdale, a partnership between digital platform creator Infosys and Arizona State University could bring 1,000 jobs to the city at the SkySong development, according to an ASU announcement.

Lord, Daniels, Lane and Schoaf were joined at Scottsdale City Hall by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Paradise Valley Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner and Surprise Mayor Skip Hall. 

One topic discussed was budget overrides, which are not directly connected to local governments but can benefit from support from local leaders.

While he said he has supported district budget overrides in the past as avenues to provide adequate funding for local districts, Schoaf said the override system is inherently unfair to students in districts that do not pass them.

Schoaf said he would like to see the state adequately fund education so that overrides are not a necessity and that he would be willing to pay more in taxes to make that happen.

“Absolutely, we pay more when we have an override,” Schoaf said. “Locally, the districts that have an override, we pay more.”

The discussion was a timely one as a number of districts in the mayors’ communities will be going out for bonds or budget overrides in November this year, including Scottsdale Unified, Avondale Elementary, Chandler Unified, Gilbert Public Schools, Mesa Public Schools, Higley Unified, Paradise Valley Unified, Phoenix Elementary and Tempe Elementary.

Several mayors again turned the discussion to a system overhaul.

Lane said the Department of Education had become too politicized.

He also echoed Daniels’ criticism, saying that society needs to be careful not to hold onto a system that is not working simply because it is the status quo.

“These are tough words sometimes to be heard by some folks, but that is really one of the big issues,” Lane said.

If the federal government was removed from public education, Arizona would have to reconcile a considerable funding gap.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona was one of the states to receive the highest percentage of its public school revenues from the federal government in the fiscal year 2017 at 13.7%.

The education discussion spanned well beyond radical calls for upheaval, though.

The mayors also discussed the ways the existing educational infrastructure in their communities affects and is affected by tech industry investment in the Valley. 

Education funding was also a hot topic as tech employers want to know that there is an adequate education system in place to support their growth and allow them to attract qualified workers.

Arizona’s per-pupil spending of $8,003 ranked 46th out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the fiscal year 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest numbers.

The state has since partially implemented Gov. Doug Ducey’s 20x2020 plan that has increased teacher salaries statewide.

Arizona still ranks near the bottom nationwide in teacher pay even with partial implementation Ducey’s plan, according to Expect More Arizona.

Schoaf said his primarily residential community is not focused on attracting tech companies but does want the executives from those companies to live in his city.

“But one of the most crucial items is education, particularly our elementary and our secondary education,” Schoaf said.

Schoaf said adequately funding primary and secondary education is key to attracting those companies and residents and preparing students to work in tech jobs.

“We can’t expect to be able to educate our children in STEM subjects if we can’t afford to have a teacher who will go and work there to teach them,” Schoaf said.

Though cities have no influence over the actual funding of school districts, the mayors pointed to the importance of remaining engaged with the local school districts to provide support in other ways through collaboration and sharing of ideas.

“We help in any way we can. We’re showing up,” said Lord, whose city includes five school districts. “You know I always say if you show up, it says you’re interested and many people don’t show up.”

Daniels said she brings together leaders from the three public school districts in Gilbert and 33 charter or private schools to discuss important education topics.

Lane pointed to programs in the past in which his city has used the Sister Cities program to bring in Mandarin instructors and how the city has supported the robotics team at Saguaro High School.

Lane also commended area businesses like Nuro, a robotics and autonomous vehicle company, for working with programs like the Saguaro robotics team.

Similarly, Gallego said Phoenix supports local high school robotics teams and has even heard from local teams that want to help solve city problems.

“We love the idea of using our great, brilliant students to solve our local problems,” Gallego said.

There is still a financial question as to how local governments can support the district’s financial needs.

Gallego pointed to her city’s investment in a downtown medical school on-site previously secured for a Cardinals football stadium as a major contributor to growing the city’s educated workforce.

“And now we’ve gotten billions of dollars of economic impact from instead of getting football, getting medical education…we are not the ones educating doctors, but we are helping create the physical space where that happens,” Gallego said.