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Arizona judge says schools can prove they haven't received enough state funding

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona schools are entitled to get their day in court to prove the state has shorted them by billions of dollars.
In a ruling released Wednesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin 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.
"Accepting defendants' arguments based on mootness would preclude courts from ever deciding whether Arizona's capital finance system complies with the constitution,'' Martin wrote.
"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.''
There was no immediate comment from legislative leaders.
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 now 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.
After several more rulings, lawmakers eventually created a School Facilities Board to come up with minimum guidelines and created a system to both finance new schools as needed as well as provide $200 million a year for upkeep.
Only thing is, lawmakers have not fully funded that formula for years, adopting a more year-by-year approach of having districts seek funds.
The result, according to challengers, has been a shortage of funds to pay not only for repairs but for other needs ranging from school buses to textbooks. And that, they said, forces school districts to use locally raised funds -- assuming voters are willing to go along -- to pay for needs the Supreme Court concluded are a state responsibility.
Josh Bendor, another attorney representing the schools, said Wednesday that only adds to the disparities the high court found illegal.
He 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, Bendor 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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On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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