State argues for dismissal of Arizona schools suit

PHOENIX (AP) — A lawsuit declaring Arizona public schools have been short-changed by a faulty state funding process should be dismissed, lawyers for the state said Friday.

Attorneys representing the Legislature and the Arizona School Facilities Board argued for a dismissal before a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, saying the plaintiffs want the court to weigh in on what is a policy decision.

The suit was filed in April by a coalition of school districts, citizens and education groups. According to the lawsuit, the state’s current school funding scheme is unconstitutional because it violates the “uniform and general” clause of the state Constitution.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that it is the state’s responsibility to provide cash for new schools, major maintenance and things like textbooks. Under the constitution, the facilities board must provide funding so districts meet guidelines of adequacy for school facilities.

The Legislature began cutting that spending during the Great Recession, and it hasn’t been fully restored.

Schools say they’ve been shorted about $2 billion.

The plaintiffs want the judge to call for changes to those guidelines. Lead defense attorney Brett Johnson said the plaintiffs could have taken advantage of a review process with the board but, “instead they run to court.”

“There is an administrative process at hand and the court should let it work itself out,” Johnson said. “The court is the wrong place to evaluate these cases.”

Mary O’Grady, who represents the plaintiffs, said they deserve an opportunity to present evidence of a systemic problem for school districts.

“This is not a claim about ‘Please give me money to fix my parking lot ‘… It’s about whether they’re entitled to money,” O’Grady said. “This will be about the system as a whole.”

Judge Daniel Martin said he would take their arguments under advisement but could not promise an immediate decision.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say the state should be paying about $300 million a year into the special fund.

The fight over capital funding goes back to 1991, when one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys sued the state for improperly funding buildings and “soft capital” costs like books and computers.

Around the time the hearing convened, Gov. Doug Ducey released a budget plan that pushes $100 million into a funding stream that pays for school capital costs as part of five-year plan to fully restore $371 million in cuts made since the Great Recession.

More than $117 million of those capital cuts occurred under Ducey’s first spending plan in 2015. He also wants $35 million in new cash for building overhauls and another $88 million for new school construction.

The Republican governor touted the new spending on “soft capital” needs earlier this week, but education advocates slammed it as too little when K-12 school receive much less now than they did pre-recession.

The governor’s actions prompted two of the plaintiffs — a citizen and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials — to pull out of the lawsuit. The association said “the governor’s proposal has merit and provides the kind of support that brings immediate relief to our school districts versus waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit.”

This ongoing funding issue also prompted Republican state Rep. Doug Coleman to introduce legislation this week to permanently extend a sales tax that benefits public schools. Coleman, of Apache Junction, said making the six-tenths of one cent sales tax permanent would provide more budget certainty for K-12 education.

The tax approved by voters as Proposition 301 in 2000 brings in around 10 percent of total state school funding and expires after 2020.

Republican lawmakers are hesitant to raise taxes. Coleman acknowledged it would be difficult to get the required two-thirds vote.

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