Governor wants to put brakes on new school construction

PHOENIX -- Gov. Jan Brewer wants to save money for the state by refusing to fund new schools in some districts that need them.

The proposal unveiled Friday would scrap the current system where a school district can force the state to fund a new school once it shows sufficient population growth. Instead, it would allow the state to tell the districts -- and the parents in the affected area -- to solve the problem on their own if there is another school within 10 miles that has space, even if that school were in another district entirely.

John Arnold, the governor's budget chief, said parents in the affected area could simply decide to voluntarily enroll their children in the adjacent school district. He conceded, though, the state would not fund the cost of busing the children to the more remote school.

Arnold said there are other options for parents, including living with an overcrowded school, putting a school on double shifts -- or taxing themselves to build the new school, without state help.

The plan drew an angry reaction from Tim Hogan from the Center for Law in the Public Interest. He said it's not fair to force parents into that kind of situation.

More to the point, Hogan contends it is illegal and runs afoul of a 1994 Arizona Supreme Court ruling which requires the state to ensure that all students have adequate classrooms. And Hogan, who successfully prosecuted that lawsuit, vowed to go back to court if Brewer convinces lawmakers to go along with the plan.

Arnold, however, said the change will withstand legal challenge and complies with the court ruling.

"All it says is you must provide adequate (schools),' he said. "And the state gets to choose what is adequate.'

Brewer also defended the change as necessary to save money: It would reduce the annual cost of school construction for the state from $60 million a year to $10 million.

"Obviously, there's not been a lot of dollars for building new facilities,' she said. And the governor said some of the state's more than 220 school districts are growing while others have declining enrollment.

"It would be more sensible, in our belief, that, in order to get the best use of our dollars is drawing that 10-mile radius around the school district, therefore utilizing those districts that maybe have empty spaces,' Brewer said.

"It doesn't make any sense to be building additional classroom space when you've got excess capacity in the same proximity,' added press aide Matthew Benson.

Arnold, in explaining how the new system would work, used the Benson school district. He said there are sections in the southwest corner of the district where the additional population would normally justify a new elementary school.

If the law is changed, though, the state would draw a map centered on the area of the population growth, with a circle 10 miles in radius. Then, if there were a school with classroom space within that radius, the state would deny the new school.

In this case, he said, there is a school with space in the adjacent Pomerene Elementary School District. So the state would refuse to build a new school in the Benson district, telling officials and parents there to figure out how to solve the problem on their own, with no financial help and no funds for busing.

Arnold said the move forces school districts to make the same decisions they did for 100 years.

Hogan, however, said that ignores that Supreme Court ruling which directed lawmakers to come up with a plan to build and maintain schools that ensured no district went without because of its individual financial circumstances. In response, lawmakers came up with the current plan which makes the state responsible for both new construction and major repairs.

He said there is a way for Brewer to do what she wants: Revamp the entire state school system and scrap the individually controlled school districts, each of which raises taxes from its own residents. Only then, he said, with local taxpayers not responsible for just their own area, could the state force a more regional approach to new school construction.


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