Lawsuit contends state fails to keep pace with Arizona school construction needs

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

The lawsuit, set to be filed Monday, 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. The net effect, the justices said, was to create an unequal -- and unconstitutional -- system of rich and poor districts.

After several failed attempts, lawmakers finally approved a plan that was supposed to have the state pick up the responsibility. But the schools that are 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 $2 billion since 2009.

“Those cuts have never been restored,’’ said Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association said in a prepared statement.

“State leaders have ignored this obligation far too long,’’ Vega continued. “They have lost this fight once and it is time to step up and adequately fund public schools according to the law.’’

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.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss is focused now on getting approval for a new state budget and has no immediate comment.

But Ducey’s own budget in prior years has never fully funded the formula that is supposed to pay for construction and repairs. And even with an improving economy, the governor proposes to earmark just $17 million for the coming budget year for school capital needs.

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 $100 million into a special fund that could be tapped by poor districts for construction needs. Lawmakers also agreed to provide another $30 million a year for nine more years.

The Supreme 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.

“Districts ... would still need to issue general obligation bonds in order to fund major capital projects, bonds that are backed by property values within a district,’’ wrote Martone. He said the net effect was that some districts had to impose large tax hikes to meet basic needs while others, relying on the district’s property wealth, could get the same net cash with a smaller tax increase.

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 $300 million annual price tag, instead absorbing the cost into the general fund.

That, however, worked only when the economy was good and revenues were increasing. When the Great Recession hit and state tax collections tanked, one of the casualties was money for the board.

The result has been that local districts that need schools or major repairs but can’t wait for a state grant once again 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.’’

The schools and groups that are filing suit are not the only ones who have noticed the lack of funding.

Earlier this week state schools chief Diane Douglas proposed boosting the current 0.6-cent state sales tax for education to a full penny. While $300 million of that would go each year to teacher salaries, Douglas said $100 million annually would help address the unmet capital needs.

Among the plaintiffs is the Arizona Education Association. President Joe Thomas said it would be nice if lawmakers agreed to a settlement rather than dragging the case through the courts as what happened decades ago.

“We’ve got district schools that need this money,’’ he said. And Thomas said this is about more than new buildings.

“We want to have kids in safe schools where the air conditioners work and the buses work,’’ he said, aside from classrooms for teaching. “And that requires an investment by the state.’’

Thomas also took a slap at lawmakers and the governor who he said have been focused more on funding for vouchers and charter schools than in maintaining the public school system.

“There is a real philosophy that it’s OK to educate some kids and neglect others,’’ he said.

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