Schools Sue Arizona for Hundreds of Millions

PHOENIX (CN) — In defiance of the state Supreme Court, Arizona has withheld billions of maintenance dollars from school districts, a coalition of school districts, the Arizona School Boards Association and others claim in court, unconstitutionally burdening taxpayers to pay for repairs.

Lead plaintiff Glendale Elementary School District was joined by three other school districts, the School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, Arizona School Administrators Inc., the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and two taxpayers, in the May 1 lawsuit in Maricopa County Court.

They claim that despite three Arizona Supreme Court opinions from 1994 through 1998, that the state is financially responsible for school maintenance, Arizona has failed to provide school districts with adequate capital funding, to ensure that buildings, facilities and equipment meet minimum standards.

Tim Hogan, an attorney for the coalition, said at a news conference Monday that if Arizona is serious about funding education it can start by eliminating tax cuts. Hogan is with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which filed a similar suit against the state more than two decades ago that spawned the state Supreme Court rulings.

“The state’s failure to provide funding for school buildings, facilities and equipment that meet the minimum standards and ensure that students have the equipment and facilities necessary to achieve the state’s academic standards also results in some school district taxpayers providing the necessary funding through local property taxation,” the complaint states. “In effect, the state has transferred its constitutional obligation to fund public schools to local taxpayers.”

The school districts say that after paying for maintenance and operations, they have “little to no funds” to cover new schools, additions to schools, renovations and repairs. They also struggle to meet needs for books, buses and technology.

John Scholl, superintendent of the co-plaintiff Chino Valley Unified School District, detailed some of his district’s woes during the news conference.

“We have 31 buses; two of those are from 1980,” Scholl said. “We recently borrowed a bus for an extended period of time from a neighboring school district because we didn’t have enough functioning buses to get our kids to school.”

Two schools in the Glendale Elementary School District had to be closed this year due to structural deficiencies. The district is also a plaintiff.

“We have to stop ignoring over 1 million students who have chosen to attend public school districts,” said Mike Barragan, assistant superintendent of Glendale Elementary School District.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said Monday that the state had a budget deficit, but is now balanced.

“We are investing,” Ducey said. “We are investing in education. We’ve got money for capital and construction.”

In 1998, a court settlement provided Arizona schools with $1.2 billion to correct building deficiencies. That money stopped rolling in a decade later, though, and in 2013 the state repealed the funding.

“As a result of these legislative changes enacted in the past five years, the state no longer provides any dedicated capital funding directly to school districts to ensure that their building and equipment meet state standards,” the complaint states.

According to the coalition, maintenance and operations were underfunded by more than $230 million from 2013 through 2015, and more than $350 million in 2016 and 2017. Only about $70 million was available to school districts for fiscal year 2017, the schools say.

The coalition seeks declaratory judgment that Arizona’s school finance system is unconstitutional because the state is required “to insure the proper maintenance of all educational institutions and to provide for their development and improvement.”

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