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Arizona schools sue state over budget cuts to buildings, maintenance

(Flickr/xMizLitx)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A group of school districts and associations representing school officials and teachers sued the state of Arizona on Monday, saying that the Legislature has shorted them billions of dollars in required capital project funding over the past decade.

The lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court seeks a declaration that Arizona’s current school funding scheme is unconstitutional because it violates the “uniform and general” clause of the state Constitution.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that it is the state’s responsibility to provide cash for new schools, major maintenance and things like textbooks. The Legislature began cutting that spending during the Great Recession, and it hasn’t been fully restored.

Schools said they’ve been shorted about $2 billion.

“The state Supreme Court has said many times a number of years ago when we first litigated these issues what a general and uniform system as far as building facilities and equipment requires,” attorney Tim Hogan said.

“It requires the state to provide funding for all school buildings facilities and equipment to meet minimum adequacy standards — and the state is no longer doing that.”

The lawsuit was announced at an elementary school in Glendale that was forced to shut down for emergency repairs last year.

The lawsuit comes nearly a year after voters approved a plan to settle another multibillion-dollar school funding lawsuit by tapping the state’s land trust. Proposition 123 adds $3.5 billion in spending over 10 years to cover required yearly inflation adjustments in basic school aid.

Hogan said the state should be paying about $300 million a year into the special fund that lets schools pay for building construction and maintenance and things like school buses and textbooks.

“The key here is there is no longer as of today any dedicated capital funding,” he said.

Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing to spend $17 million for those items next year.

At a media availability Monday, the Republican governor declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit, but he said his administration has prioritized education funding.

“We have dug out of a tremendous hole in our budget,” Ducey said. “If you’ll remember two sessions ago, we had a $1 billion budget deficit. Today, our budget’s balanced. We’re investing. We’re investing in education. We’ve got money for capital and construction.”

Ducey is proposing an additional $114 million in K-12 school funding in the budget year that starts on July 1, with the extra money going to teacher pay, rewards for high-performing schools and several other initiatives.

But he has also signed legislation that extends the state’s private school voucher system to all Arizonans, with a cap of 30,000 participants by 2022.

The fight over capital funding goes back to 1991, when Hogan sued the state for improperly funding buildings and “soft capital” costs like books and computers. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the state must provide the funding to ensure all school districts provide proper facilities.

The state paid up after a 1998 settlement deal, providing $1.3 billion in back money and up to $400 million a year going forward for capital expenses. But the state has repeatedly failed to fund the School Facilities Board, leading to a shortfall of up to $2 billion.

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