7 March 1998 op ed
. out 7 v v LJ'- i MARLENE PONTRELLI MAEROWm Special for The Republic So many schools, so little $$$$ The Legislature has done it again. At first blush, the $350 million that was sug- -gested in a recent proposal for school financing"" seems like a lot, until you realize it will take close to $1 billion to fix the state's inadequate funding system. Other portions of the proposal sound a death knell to the public school system. Dubbed Students FIRST, the proposal does every- . thing but take into account the needs of Arizona's pub: lie schoolchildren. FIRST stands for Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today. Although the proposal does give some money for . funding minimum adequacy standards, the amount of, $30 million to $35 million that would be allocated over the next five years to meet existing deficiencies is not enough. For example, a school district such as Gilbert would be allocated roughly $550,000, a small sum considering there are more than 20 schools in the district, Moreover, this money would be allocated only after a school district applied to a facilities board and demonstrated a need for funds. These funds could not be used to cure academic deficiencies, such as textbooks, technology equipment and library resources, unless the school district could prove that the deficiency was required to meet educational goals. Then there is the problem with building school facilities. Here, the legislative proposal sounds a bit more generous. Approximately $100 million to $200 million would be allocated. Yet, considering thai amount is for the entire state, school districts would have to wait their turn in line to be able to build a single school. The East Valley would be especially hit hard. Rapidly growing school districts, such as Gilbert, Kyrene, Hi-. gley and Queen Creek, would suffer. These districts alone could use $100 million a year to keep up with the growth. That's a prospect that the Legislature surely did not envision when deciding how to slice the school funding pie. Again, the bureaucracy of applying for such funds is compounded by going through a board that would decide which school districts werp in need of new schools and which ones must wait. Local control over school facilities would be over. Last year, voters in the Gilbert School District passed an $82.5 million capital budget override that was des- ' perately needed to fund a new high school, a junior high and two new elementary schools. Even with such an override, the numbers in the Gilbert District keep increasing. Several elementary schools in the district have student populations of more than 1,000. Yet, imagine the consequences if local funding was not available. Under the Student FIRST proposal, school districts could seek limited overrides from voters. However, the tax rate would be levied at 10 percent for all classes of property. This means that businesses, which are now taxed at a 25 percent ratio, would have a substantial decrease. That means essentially that a homeowner's property taxes for school construction would be increased to make up the difference. The result would , be a windfall for businesses and a loss for homeowners. This might make overrides difficult in the future. Students FIRST is another way of crushing the public school system and requiring parents to turn to private or charter schools to obtain the basics that should be supplied by a public that values education. We do not have to look far to see the crippling results of a public school system when legislatures fail to make adequate school funding a priority. Look at California public schools. The entire system is a shambles, with deficiencies in facilities, technology and academics. By necessity, parents have turned to private schools because they provide what the public schools should be supplying: facilities meeting adequate standards, computers and technology integrated into the classrooms, and textbooks and materials in ready supply. To obtain these basics, tuition at private schools in the San Fernando Valley averages $10,000 a year per child. To pay such costs, either both parents must work or else spend the children's college savings on kindergarten. Gilbert voters may not be going to the polls Tuesday,-but they can go to their phones. Voters who truly want the state to put students first, need to call their legisla-' tive representatives, the superintendent of public instruction, and even the governor, and let them know that they aren't fooled by a meaningless acronym. It does not take a doctorate in education to figure out what the school system needs: money. Allocation of adequate funds should be the state's top priority. Our chil' dren and their future depend on it. Marlene PontretH Maerowrtz, a lawyer, lives in Gilbert Her column appears every other Saturday.