Judge won’t delay decision on school funding

PHOENIX -- A judge won’t delay deciding whether the state is violating constitutional requirements to adequately fund school capital needs while lawmakers decide what -- if anything -- they are going to do about the problem.

In a brief order made public Wednesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin rejected a bid by attorneys for both the state and legislative leaders to postpone any action on the lawsuit filed last year by various school districts and other groups. In essence, the judge agreed with challengers that there’s no evidence that lawmakers will approve a funding plan offered by Gov. Doug Ducey, much less one that actually resolves the issue.

But Martin’s order does not mean that those contesting the state’s funding formula are going to win their case -- or even that they’re going to get to make it. The judge is still weighing arguments by defendants that there is no legal basis for the lawsuit and he should toss it out.

Attorney Brett Johnson who represents the state contends that the amount of money put into schools is a “political question’’ beyond the reach of the courts.

And Bill Richards, speaking on behalf of Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, argued that there is no constitutional requirement for the state to fund some of the expenses that the challengers say are needed to maintain an adequate school system. Richards also said the question of what should be the minimum guidelines for these items is within the “exclusive discretion of the Legislature.’’

At the heart of the battle is the contention by the plaintiffs that the state is not living up to its obligation to build and repair schools as well as to pay for other capital needs like buses and equipment.

There are multiple Arizona Supreme Court rulings which have said these burdens cannot be borne solely by local taxpayers. And in their wake, state lawmakers did set up a system to have the state take over that role.

But funding for that was cut sharply during the recession. In filing suit last year, attorney Tim Hogan pegged the unfunded needs in the neighborhood of $300 million a year; the lost dollars, he said, exceed $1 billion.

The move to put the case on the back burner came after Ducey in January announced a plan to eventually restore full funding for the “district additional assistance’’ account to bring it back to the $371 million that it should be according to state law. This account provides money for things like textbooks, computers, school buses and some capital funding.

Ducey also proposed to put $88 million into the budget for new school construction and add another $35.2 million to a fund available to schools for repairs, bringing that total to $51.8 million.

At a hearing last month, Johnson told Martin that the governor and the Legislature are working “very diligently’’ to resolve the issues. He said the “experts’’ in this area should be given the opportunity to deal with the question rather than having it decided by the courts.

“There is a solution on the table,’’ he said.

But Mary O’Grady, who also represents the plaintiffs, told Martin that what Ducey offered is just a proposal, with no guarantee that the Republican-controlled Legislature will accede to the governor’s requests.

Anyway, she said, even if lawmakers give Ducey everything he wants, that still won’t resolve the legal issues.

For example, she said, rather than funding new schools as they are needed due to student growth, the state has set up a system where it only provides the cash after a school already exceeds capacity, something O’Grady said violates the constitutional mandate.

And she sniffed at the $51.8 million offer for repairs, saying the formula used to compute what’s necessary requires $260 million.

“The governor’s current proposal comes nowhere close to this amount, and there is no basis for concluding that the amounts proposed ensure that schools meet state standards,’’ O’Grady argued.

Beyond that, she said Ducey’s plan does not provide dedicated funding for “soft capital’’ needs like textbooks, technology and school buses.

Ducey’s offer did have one effect: The board of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials voted to withdraw as a plaintiff in the case. While saying that “critical’’ needs remain, the board, in a prepared statement, said Ducey’s plan, if enacted, “brings immediate relief to our school districts versus waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit.’’

That, however, still leaves the other plaintiffs, including the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, the Crane, Elfrida and Glendale elementary school districts and the Chino Valley Unified School District.

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