Opinion: Neglect of Arizona schools’ capital needs violates constitution

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School districts all over Arizona are challenged today by aging schools and inadequate funds to repair or replace them.

This is a major problem for our educators and for the children they teach --- and it is a violation of the Arizona Constitution, which requires the state to maintain a “general and uniform” system of public schools.

We’ve faced this problem before. In the 1990s, a school district’s ability to have decent buildings, textbooks, and computers depended almost entirely on whether it could pass bonds and overrides.

Kids in districts with little property wealth or with voters who wouldn’t pass bonds were left behind. After years of litigation, the Arizona Supreme Court held that this system violated the Arizona Constitution.

As a result, the Legislature eventually enacted legislation called Students FIRST to fix this problem.

Students FIRST provided money to fix the disrepair that had built up over the years, take care of buildings going forward, build new schools in growing districts, and buy “soft capital” items like textbooks, computers, and buses.
Unfortunately, the state has broken the promise of Students FIRST.

It eliminated a “Building Renewal” program designed to give schools funds to take care of their buildings, and replaced it with a bureaucratic grant program with paltry funding that is only available after a building system (like a roof or air conditioning unit) has failed.

The state also ignored its statutory duty to inspect schools; slashed funding for textbooks, computers, and buses; stopped updating its facilities, security, and technology standards (used to determine funding); and made the program for new school construction a shadow of its former self, providing too little funding and delaying what funding there was until after districts were already overcapacity for years.

By 2017, schools had been devastated by these years of neglect. Once again, districts had to ask their voters to approve bonds so they could do basic things like replace aging air conditioners and buses, fix faulty roofs, and make schools safe for our children and their teachers.

In districts that could not pass bonds, kids rode aging buses to schools that had dilapidated classrooms, outdated textbooks and technology, and no ability to adopt even basic security features.

That was why, in 2017, our clients --- four school districts, three education organizations, and a taxpayer --- sued the state. Over the last two years, we’ve taken almost 50 depositions and collected a mountain of evidence. The picture has been remarkably consistent.

Even many of the state’s witnesses admit that the state provides inadequate funding to keep school facilities from falling below basic standards.

The state has responded by addressing a few of the problems. The massive cuts to the funding source for textbooks, computers, and buses (so-called “District Additional Assistance”) are finally being restored. That is progress. However, it does not make up for the huge cumulative impact of the previous cuts or the fact that District Additional Assistance has not been adjusted for inflation in over 20 years.

Nor does it make up for these facts:

  • The new school construction program provides only half of what it costs to build a new school;
  • The state’s facilities, security, and technology standards haven’t been meaningfully updated since 1998;
  • Funding to repair facilities is inadequate and unavailable until after a responsible district would have already fixed the problem.

Until the governor and the Legislature solve these problems, local taxpayers will be stuck footing the bill for basic needs, our kids in districts without bonds will be left behind, and the state will continue to violate its Constitutional responsibility to provide a uniform system of public education.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Adelman is the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Josh Bendor and Mary O’Grady are partners in the Phoenix law firm of Osborn Maledon P.A. All three are counsel for the plaintiffs in the capital funding lawsuit, Glendale Elementary School District v. State of Arizona.

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