Arizona Lawsuit Claims Only Lawmakers Should Regulate Public School Funding

By Holliday Moore
Howard Fischer
Published: Thursday, October 5, 2017 - 10:37am

It’s been more than two decades since state Supreme Court justices ordered Arizona ensure public school buildings are safe and equipment needs are fulfilled.

As of today, public school advocates estimate districts are nearly $2 billion short of those promised funds.

Now, two attorneys, one for the state, the other for House Speaker JD Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, are telling a judge she can’t force lawmakers to pay up. Only lawmakers can do that.

They’re reacting to a lawsuit filed by the public school districts’ attorney Mary O’Grady. She has argued that the state constitution obligates Arizona to provide “adequate” facilities for all public schools. 

“It's whether the system ensures that school districts have the funding that's necessary to meet their capital needs,” O’Grady said. "You've got to have standards and you've got to have funding to meet the standards.”

Attorney Bill Richards who represents Mesnard and Yarbrough told the presiding judge that telling lawmakers what the school districts want would, “improperly intrude on matters preserved to the discretion of the legislative branch.''

O’Grady called that logic flawed. Noting that lawmakers have failed over the years to meet the constitutional minimum standards, she said the issue “is absolutely within the reach of the courts.”

Tim Hogan, another attorney representing public school interests, explained the $2 billion amassed over the decades comes after lawmakers shorted schools nearly every year since the high court ordered the funding formula be fixed.

At the time it passed, districts were chiefly responsible for building and equipment repairs and purchases.

That practice, the justices wrote, left low income schools “unsafe, unhealthy, and in violation of building, fire and safety codes.” While in wealthier districts schools had, “swimming pools, a domed stadium, science laboratories, television studios, well-stocked libraries, satellite dishes and extensive computer systems.”

The justices found the conditions violated the state constitutional obligation to maintain a “general and uniform” school system.

But, it took several more rulings before lawmakers established the School Facilities Board to clearly define guidelines, a path for financing new schools and a $200 million a year minimum standard for school maintenance and repairs.

Lawmakers have missed meeting that self-imposed minimum for years.

As a result, O’Grady and Hogan argue school districts must bypass lawmakers and ask tax payers directly for funds through bonds and overrides to buy and repair buses and textbooks, and repair or build schools – all items the Supreme Court concluded in 1994 were to be paid by state collected tax payer dollars.

Those arguments aside, attorney Brett Johnson plans to take another approach.

He has claimed only districts that can show “particularized” injury have a right to file a claim. That can only happen, he said, after a district has filed with the School Facilities Board and has been turned down funding. Otherwise, he has found, districts do not have a legal claim.

The hearing is set to begin in December.