PHOENIX -- Doug Ducey wants to make empty schools and classrooms in existing public schools available to other public and charter schools that have students waiting to enroll.
The new governor, in his first State of the State speech, said Arizona has many high qualify schools where parents want to send their children. But he said these schools are at capacity and need more space.
But Ducey provided no specifics of exactly how that would be done, who would pick up the costs. Nor did he explain what happens when public schools once again get the state funds they have been denied, funds that will let them hire more teachers, decrease class size and they now need the space.
He also promised to help school districts repay the money they've borrowed for capital improvements. But Ducey, who insisted he won't raise taxes -- or even delay tax previously approved cuts which have not yet taken effect -- did not say from where that money will come.
And Ducey was similarly without specifics on his pledge to actually put more dollars into classrooms.
About the closest he came was his insistence that Arizona schools spend too much on administrative costs. So he is putting together a team to find ways to move some of those dollars into things like teacher salaries.
That last point annoyed House Minority Leader Eric Meyer who said he served on a school board where members worked hard to minimize administrative costs.
It is true that Arizona schools put less than 55 cents of every dollar into classrooms, mainly teacher salaries, about six cents less than the national average. But the state Auditor General's Office found administrative costs for Arizona school on average are 9.9 percent of total dollars; nationally, school districts spend 10.7 percent of their budgets on administration, which includes superintendents, principals, business managers and other staff who do accounting, payroll, printing, human resource and tech services.
Meyer said there's less money going into classroom spending because schools during the past six years were denied $4 billion in funds they were otherwise due.
"In order to be more efficient, we closed schools because our class sizes were so large,' he said, creating the empty classrooms. "If we actually go back and start funding education at an appropriate level, we'll need those classrooms back.'
In his speech, the governor also told lawmakers he wants:
- State income tax brackets indexed so that individuals do not pay more solely because their wages increase no more than inflation. A bill to do just that was vetoed in 2013 by Gov. Jan Brewer because of the $11 million hit to tax revenues.
- A requirement for high schoolers to pass a civics test to get a diploma. This comes as the state is eliminating Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, tests that have been required to graduate.
- To create a position of inspector general to search out savings in state spending. That person also would have "a badge and subpoena power to go in, ask the tough questions and be a watchdog for the taxpayers' against corruption.
- The state to do a better job of going after "deadbeat dads' who don't pay child support.
Ducey also said he is opposed to suggestions by some that hundreds of millions of dollars in business tax cuts be canceled or delayed. They were enacted in 2011 and 2012 under the premise the economy would have recovered by now as they are starting to kick in.
"They were designed to put more life in our economy and that need is stronger than ever,' Ducey said. He said if the state reneges now, businesses may decide to cancel their expansion plans here.
But Assistant Senate Minority Leader Steve Farley said the incentive package and promise of lower taxes has not brought any jobs to the state where the unemployment rate is still a full point above the national average.
"And wages have gone down,' he said. Farley said economic development depends on more than low taxes.
"It's about transportation infrastructure, it's about education infrastructure so you can hire the right employees and train the next generation of entrepreneurs to fire the economy,' he said.
The new governor said details of how he intends to deal with a potential $500 million shortfall this fiscal year and another $1 billion next year will come when he releases his budget on Friday. But in the interim he has imposed a hiring freeze, saying state agencies won't fill vacancies unless they involve public safety or child safety.
In devoting much of his speech to education, Ducey said parents need choice.
He said Arizona has some of the best public schools in America. And state law allows children to enroll in any public school they want, whether traditional public schools or charter schools which also are public schools under state law.
But only neighborhood schools have to take all children in their area. Ducey said that creates waiting lists for the best schools.
"Unfortunately because of yesterday's policies, many families are shut out,' he said.
"They sit and wait, as their sons and daughters get another year older and their dreams of providing them with the best public education possible slip farther and farther away,' Ducey said. "This has gone on too long.'
That's where the nearly 400,000 empty seats come in, some in empty classrooms and some in schools that have since been shuttered, all paid for by taxpayers.
Ducey said the vacant classrooms would be administered by a newly created Arizona Public School Achievement District. But he had no specifics on questions like paying rent, liability or even how long one school could claim space in another.
"It will take time to flush out all the details,' said press aide Daniel Scarpinato.
Neither the new governor nor Scarpinato provided specifics for another Ducey priority: Wresting control of underperforming schools from local control.
"First rate public school superintendents, principals, teachers and operators make the difference,' Ducey said. "So when local control intended to benefit children turns into organized chaos to protect bureaucrats, expect a united Legislature and chief executive to make a change.'
Existing law already allows the state Board of Education to push out both elected local school board members as well as administrators when schools fail for multiple years to meet standards. Pressed for how Ducey wants to change that, Scarpinato said, "the details are coming.'
Ducey also called for settlement of a lawsuit over school funding.
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that legislators and then-Gov. Jan Brewer ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to adjust state aid for schools each year to account for inflation. That sent the case back to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper to figure out exactly how much schools are owed.
Cooper already has ruled current state aid needs to be immediately increased by $317 million. And she is weighing a request by schools for more than $1 billion in aid not given in prior years.
Ducey told lawmakers they should get the issue behind them. And he asked schools to do the same thing.
"It's time to stop paying lawyers and start paying teachers,' he said.
Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.