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Schools Sue State Over Construction Funding

Credit: Office of Governor Doug Ducey

By Howard Fischer for Capitol Media Services

Just a year after settling one education funding lawsuit, state lawmakers face a new one, this time over what challengers say is their failure to build and properly maintain public schools.

The lawsuit is based on claims that the Legislature is effectively ignoring a 1994 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court which said it is illegal to have taxpayers in each school district solely responsible for school construction.

After several failed attempts, lawmakers approved a plan that was supposed to have the state pick up the responsibility. But the schools filing suit contend the Legislature has not provided adequate funds in years.

Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials estimates the state has shorted schools more than $2B since 2009.

The result, according to school officials, has been to throw the financial burden back on local districts whose voters have had to borrow money for what should be a state responsibility — precisely the situation the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 1994.

Under the system in place before 1994, school districts raised and borrowed money for new construction and repairs through local property taxes.

That year the high court said it created illegal disparities between rich districts and poor ones.

“Some districts have schoolhouses that are unsafe, unhealthy and in violation of building, fire and safety codes,” wrote Justice Frederick Martone for the high court. “There are schools without libraries, science laboratories, computer rooms, art programs, gymnasiums and auditoriums.”

At the same time, Martone said, “there are schools with indoor swimming pools, a domed stadium, science laboratories, television studios, well-stocked libraries, satellite dishes and expensive computer systems.”

The justices declared the funding system illegal but refused to impose their own solution, directing lawmakers to come up with a cure.

In 1996, the legislature agreed to put $100M into a special fund that could be tapped by poor districts for construction needs. Lawmakers also agreed to provide another $30M a year for nine more years.

The Court found that plan flawed, too, saying it still did not meet the constitutional requirement for a “general and uniform” school system.

A 1997 alteration provided more cash. But here, too, the justices said that was not enough.

Lawmakers eventually created the School Facilities Board which was supposed to pick up every district’s construction needs.

Only thing is, they never came up with a new source of revenue to fund the potential $300M annual price tag, instead absorbing the cost into the general fund.

The result has been districts that need schools or major repairs but can’t wait for a state grant have to turn to their local voters for bond approval. And that brings the funding system back to what the Supreme Court previously found illegal.

Read more at Arizona City Independent.

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