18 March 1998 Students FIRST op ed
School-funding plan hits average districts hardest By Mary Hartley, Ruth Solomon, Joe Eddie Lopez and George Cunningham In the next few days, the state Legislature may pass a bill that would dramatically change your community school district Under the Students FIRST school capital funding proposal, your community may not have the funds to build a new school building or to do major renovation of existing schools for more than a decade. This proposal would take away the ability of local communities to build schools through passage of bonds and instead; would create a state School Facilities Board to make decisions regarding when your neighborhood needs a school and how much money it would get to build that school. Without the ability to make local decisions about building schools, school districts would have to crowd more students into existing facilities or bus children to un-derenrolled schools in the district until the state decided the district was eligible for state money. This new capital funding system will be funded by the state Legislature the same state Legislature that has denied the schools inflation funding for years. Currently, the state funds the maintenance and operation of schools, and the result is a reduction in real dollars per student of 9.2 percent in the past eight years. We think it is a bad idea to trap all school districts in a newapital financing system that will depend on the political will of the Legislature when the Legislature has such a poor record of meeting the other funding needs of schools. In fact, the initial amount of funds allocated by the Legislature in the Students FIRST proposal won't even come close to meeting the building and renovation or "capital needs" of schools. The Students FIRST plan would reduce the amount of funds for school capitai needs by 40 percent, or $200 million.'' Currently, school districts spend an average of $497 million a year on capital projects, according to the Arizona Department of Education, but the Students FIRST plan would only allocate $300 million a year for capital needs once basic deficiencies are addressed. r It is easy to see how the Students FIRST plan does not add up. and this is not just a concern to wealthy districts. Average, middle-income neighborhoods like yours and ours are hardest-hit by the Students FIRST plan because the only way the state can afford to take over the funding responsibility for all school capital needs is to do it cheaply. The result is an inability to raise funding to build and renovate schools in districts of moderate property wealth. The Students FIRST plan accomplishes the goal of keeping the state's cost down by limiting access to funds for school construction. Districts that have been able to provide for their own capital needs under the existing bond-financing system would not, for the most part, be eligible for the new state funding program. In the FIRST plan, school districts that fall below certain standards for building conditions or below a certain amount of square footage of space per child w ill become eligible automatically for funding. The vast majority of school districts, however, already exceed these building, condition and space standards, so they would not be eligible for the automatic funds. . If the schools do not qualify for automatic funding, parents and school districts ,' that want to build new schools or want to , refurbish old ones will be required to stand in line and convince the unelected School i Facilities Board that they need the dollars. The board will decide whether or not the requests are granted. With limited state funding available and great demand for those dollars, there's a good chance the board will say no. This problem could be remedied if the governor, state superintendent of public instruction and Republican legislative leadership would agree to allow school districts to continue passing bonds to meet their capital needs. However, they say time and again that continued bonding is non-negotiable because they claim the Supreme Court ruling prohibits use of school district bonding for school capital needs. Despite this assertion, there is nothing in the Arizona Supreme Court decision that prohibited the use of bonds as long as those bonds were subsidized to guarantee substantially equal funding for all schools up to an adequate standard. Not only is it constitutional to use bonds, it's cheaper. With bonds, state funds could be used only as a targeted subsidy for prop-; erty-poor school districts. This would be far less expensive to the state than attempting to pay for the entire cost of Arizona's school capital needs with only state dollars. Maintaining bonds would also preserve the ability of parents in local school districts to make decisions about when to build new schools and how much to spend on them. - There is no need to do harm to school districts to accomplish the goal of providing for a more equitable and adequate school capital funding system. The Legislature could pass a plan that is fair to all districts if it wanted to. We think it should. The authors, a Democrats, are Arizona state senators. Mary Hartley iwumsonts District 20 in Phoeraq Ruth Sotomon represents District 14 in Tucson; Joe Eddie Lopez represents District 22 in Proem x; and George Curwngham represents District 13 m Tucson.