District leaders say the legislature is hurling Arizona toward another lawsuit
When an old school bus breaks down, Higley Unified School District sent a truck to push the bus out of the road. Then their truck broke down, too.
That’s the least of Arizona schools’ problems. Districts like Kyrene School District are facing the summer’s scorching heat with coolers that could break down at any moment, which could send kids home to their parents so emergency repairs can be made.
Higley’s situation mirrors the larger problem of funding for school facilities in Arizona: not only are schools breaking down, but there’s no way to fix the problem.
After budget talks about overhauling school building maintenance flopped, the legislature has continued to cut off funding to regular school repairs in violation of the state Constitution and a previous court order.
Since 2008, districts have been digging into classroom dollars to fix the schools and will continue to do so, officials say.
“My goodness in the rural areas it’s a lot worse. You have roofs that are cracking,” said Tony Malaj, executive director for community programs and policy for Higley Unified School District.
In 1998, the state Supreme Court first demanded buildings be adequately maintained to provide a “general and uniform” public school system as required by the constitution, in a decision commonly referred to as “Students First.”
So the state established a system through a new agency, the School Facilities Board, to fund school repairs, and appropriated $2 billion to fix the schools. The legislature was supposed to appropriate money yearly to maintain school buildings.
Previously, schools had used local bond elections to maintain their facilities, but since some areas like rural districts with low property values had little bonding capacity, the court ruled that was unfair.
So bonding was restricted, money was given to the board, and schools were supposed to maintain their facilities that way.
Budget crises left the “building renewal” fund empty for the past four years though, which was supposed to provide money for routine repairs.
Schools have had to turn to their now-limited bonding abilities, and hope for more money next year—through appropriation or a court order, district leaders said.
But legislators have moved sluggishly, if at all, toward preventing legal trouble, said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, who introduced a bill to at least increase the bonding capacity of school districts, which basically allows them to borrow money from their local taxpayers.
With that bill dead, little money is left to adequately repair all the state’s schools, some of which could be in varying states of dilapidation since 2008.
“My biggest fear is something is going to go wrong somewhere because we have ignored the maintenance of the schools,” Crandall said. “Imagine a roof caving in or a boiler blowing up or something catastrophic that hurts a kid. That’s a possibility.”
This year, the legislature has offered some, but relatively little money to fund building renewal projects compared to previous years—the recently passed budget bill shows around $13 million to fund repairs as schools apply for them, though officials at the School Facilities Board say that figure may change.
There still remains no regular funding for building renewal for schools to make basic repairs needed, like air conditioning maintenance, bus repair, and replacing moldy carpets.
Now that property values have fallen in the wave of an economic crisis and the amount school districts are allowed to bond has been restricted, local funding options have run dry, too.
A bill that would have increased bonding capacities also died in the legislature, said Jeremy Calles, chief financial officer for Kyrene School District.
So schools will continue to dip into classroom dollars in order to prevent catastrophic facility breakdowns, and apply to the board on an emergency basis when huge problems occur, Calles said.
“It really doesn’t pay to maintain your school facilities, but who gets the arrows when the school air conditioner breaks down? It’s not the legislature. And the parents come to the school board meetings with the pitchforks,” Malaj said. “That legislator is sitting down in an air conditioned office at the capitol.”
Higley School District previously addressed maintenance problems with bonds, but now that the district reached its cap, officials are going to have to dip into classroom dollars to fix the buildings unless some of that $13 million is given to them.
Gov. Jan Brewer discussed an overhaul in the way the School Facilities Board gives out money for repairs to an inventory-based system, but that hasn’t formed this season.
Regardless, some districts fear a future push toward state control will reduce the overall level of quality of every district in an effort to cut costs.
Brewer proposed the School Facilities Board catalogue all repairs made in the state to every school, something that was previously left to the local school district to manage.
Since some schools have done a poor job—either because they had no money or they were irresponsible—the state wants to catalogue all those repairs themselves.
“If we do this on a statewide basis, certainly costs should come down,” said Dean Gray, executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board.
Previously, Gray explained, many school districts didn’t get much money for building renewal anyway, because of the calculation that was based on the age of the building and square footage.
Then when the money was given, “there was sometimes a lack of priorities,” Gray said. “Equipment that needed to be changed was not changed…districts often did not have the money to do this,” he said.
So by overhauling the building maintenance system and putting the SFB in charge of repairs, Gray said, packages of vital repairs could be presented to the legislature and they could choose whether to appropriate the money or not.
But Calvin Baker, superintendent of Vail School District, the top-rated district in the state, is outraged by this new plan to overhaul what he sees as a local district issue.
“We exist to improve student achievement, and it’s always frustrating when we instead have to spend our limited resources on people to send reports to Phoenix,” Baker said.
Baker said he understands the legislature is presented with a difficult problem.. But the best solution isn’t to micro-manage building maintenance because some districts have done a poor job, he said.
“Rather than spreading inefficient bureaucracy all over the state with reporting requirements and controls, the much preferable solution is to deal only with those districts that fail to demonstrate responsibility, not to start by assuming that every school district is irresponsible,” he said.
Like Baker, Calles said that the new plan to manage building maintenance would bring the quality of all school districts down by only repairing the oldest facilities first, which might cut their districts out of money for scheduled repairs.
“The only way to bring equity is to bring everyone down to the lowest level,” Calles said. “That’s why our community has always supported overrides and bonds. They don’t want to see a decaying, run-down campus.”
But Gray doesn’t think this system would reduce quality. He sees school bonding as part of the solution, though there’s no law in place to provide for that option yet.
With some limited changes put in place, many school districts fear they’re headed toward another lawsuit.
“We’re looking at taking legal action to force them to comply with the constitution here,” said Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has brought lawsuits in the past. He cites the “general and uniform” clause of the constitution for funding educational facilities.
But where are the school districts left now, looking into the summer with a new school year coming up?
“So, where that leaves us is with no bonding funding, the SFB gets a tiny amount of funding, and they’re supposed to support the entire state,” Calles said. “We’re in a position no where we’re going to limp through this next year.”
What needs to change? Get people in office who care about education, Calles said.
“We have an election coming up in November. If education is a priority for them they need to make sure they’re voting for someone who’s actually for education,” Calles said.
Mejdrich is a senior at the University of Arizona and is the Bolles Fellow this semester covering the Legislature. The fellowship was named to honor former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles who was assassinated in the line of duty.