Trial likely on $6B in lost Arizona school aid

Arizona schools are entitled to get their day in court to prove the state has shorted them by billions of dollars.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin last week rejected arguments by attorneys for the state and Republican legislative leaders that he has no right to rule on the legality of the formula they use to finance the funding of new schools and repairs for existing ones.

Martin said it clearly is within the purview of the courts to determine if the state is complying with the constitutional requirements to maintain a “general and uniform’’ school system.

The judge also sniffed at arguments that he cannot review the claims that were first filed five years ago because the state has made adjustments to its capital funding system.

“Because a case of this complexity always will span multiple years – and multiple legislative sessions – the legislature can always pass some new law that nibbles around the edges of the system, and claim that the case is moot and unripe,’’ he said. “Not surprisingly, Arizona law does not support such a contention.’’

The lawsuit, filed in 2017 by a coalition of public schools and education organizations, contends lawmakers have been shorting schools each year for the capital funds to which state law says they are entitled. Danny Adelman of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, one of the attorneys in the case, said Wednesday the cumulative loss to schools from the failure of legislators to obey the funding formula is close to $6 billion.

Its roots date back to 1994.

Prior to then, construction of new schools and needed repairs were presumed to be solely the responsibility of local districts. But in a historic ruling that year, the Arizona Supreme Court said that created gross inequities and left some schools without adequate facilities.

“Some districts have schoolhouses that are unsafe, unhealthy, and in violation of building, fire and safety codes,’’ the justices said, noting there are schools without libraries, laboratories or gymnasiums. “But in other districts, there are schools with indoor swimming pools, a domed stadium, science laboratories, television studios, well-stocked libraries, satellite dishes and extensive computer systems.’’

And, that, they said, runs afoul of that constitutional obligation for a general and uniform school system.

They said some districts have more property wealth than others. That means adding $1 to the local property tax in a rich district raises far more than the same levy in a property-poor district.

Put another way, an attorney for the schools said, people in poor districts have to raise their tax rates by three or four times as much as those in rich districts to raise the same amount of money.

No date has been set for a trial.

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