In a brief order issued late last month in Glendale Elem Sch. Dist v. State, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin rejected a bid by attorneys for both the state and legislative leaders to postpone any action on the lawsuit filed last year by the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, and various school districts. These plaintiffs allege that the state has failed to provide sufficient funds for school maintenance in violation of Article 11, Section 1 of the Arizona Constitution. In essence, the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that there is no evidence that lawmakers will approve a funding plan offered by Gov. Doug Ducey, much less one that actually resolves the issue.
In 1994, the Arizona Center for Law in Public Interest, the legal organization that is representing the plaintiffs in the present case, successfully sued the state over essentially the same issue, arguing that relying on local taxpayers to pass bonds to cover school-maintenance costs put schools in low-income areas at a disadvantage which violates the state Constitution. A settlement agreement in 1998 included $1.3 billion in one-time money to bring buildings up to state standards, and about $200 million a year to schools for soft capital for necessities such as textbooks, buses and technology. Plaintiffs allege that since the Great Recession the Legislature has reduced funding for this program by $2.4 billion.
The move to put the case on the back burner came after Gov. Ducey announced in January a plan to eventually restore full funding for the “district additional assistance” account to bring it back to the $371 million that it should be according to state law. This account provides money for things like textbooks, computers, school buses and some capital funding. The governor also proposed to put $88 million into the budget for new school construction and add another $35.2 million to a fund available to schools for repairs, bringing that total to $51.8 million.
At a hearing last month, Brett Johnson, the attorney representing the state told the Court that the governor and the Legislature are working “very diligently” to resolve the issues. He said the “experts” in this area should be given the opportunity to deal with the question rather than having it decided by the courts.
But Mary O’Grady, representing the plaintiffs, countered that the governor’s offer is nothing more than a proposal and there is no guarantee that the Legislature will accede to the governor’s requests. Even if the plan were adopted, she said, the legal issues would not be resolved. For example, rather than funding new schools as they are needed due to student growth, the state has set up a system where it only provides the cash after a school already exceeds capacity, which, she asserted violates the constitutional mandate. Plaintiffs also claim that under the applicable formula, $260 million is needed for repairs, rather than the $51.8 million the governor has called for.