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Ariz. Chief's Plan Renews DebateOn Addressing Financial Inequities

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Superintendent Leon W. Ben says he is getting tired of waiting for help.

His 1,800-student San Carlos, Ariz., school district, on an Apache Indian reservation roughly 120 miles from Phoenix, relies on portable classrooms for about 60 percent of its elementary school space. Some of its schools date to the 1800s. The district office has a leaky roof.

About a year ago, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the state's school-finance system was unconstitutional because of disparities among districts in school construction, building maintenance, and equipment. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1994.)

The state schools superintendent, Lisa Graham, this month put forward a wide-ranging plan that has renewed debate about how and when the legislature should fix the inequities.

In its July 1994 ruling, the court did not spell out specific remedies or a deadline, but it called on the legislature to correct within a "reasonable" time the disparities in the state's complex finance system for schools. The Republican-led legislature has yet to come up with a workable plan, and lawmakers last week acknowledged that they are far from agreeing on what needs to be fixed and how.

"We're at a major fork in the road here, and we can't even get a consensus about which way to go," said Tom C. Patterson, the Senate majority leader and the co-chairman of a legislative committee looking into the school-finance issue. "We can't decide whether to do a minimum fix-it job to address the court ruling or go for a more far-reaching reform."

Bypassing Districts

Ms. Graham has opted for the latter. Presenting her plan to the legislature's joint select committee on school-finance reform on Sept. 7, the Republican schools chief outlined a funding system in which all schools would have equal access to any funding increase, and money would follow the students and bypass the districts to go directly to schools.

By proposing that funding and academic decisions be made at the local school level, the district's role would be left for the individual schools to define, said Jennifer R. Mabry, the state education department's director of finance policy.

Schools now receive funding through their districts based on the average student attendance during the first 100 days of the previous school year. The plan would enhance the state's open-enrollment policy by letting schools know almost immediately how many open seats they have and providing money for open-enrollment students more quickly, Ms. Mabry said.

Superintendent Graham's plan calls for scrapping local property taxes as a means of paying for school construction and maintenance and replacing them with a statewide, uniformly applied tax--property, sales, or income, to be decided by lawmakers. It would provide a guaranteed per-pupil payment to cover the basic cost of education and bar schools from levying taxes to supplement the state's contribution.

The plan aims to equalize facilities by creating a statewide construction-finance pool--granting each school the same per-student amount--and paying district debt.

The Waiting Game

Lawmakers from both parties hailed the plan as ambitious but said it was too big for them to take on now. Republican Gov. Fife Symington is studying it and has not reached a verdict, Doug Cole, his spokesman, said.

"I don't think we should just tinker with the system so that the poorest of the poor still have a problem and the rest don't have to be concerned about it," Ms. Graham said in an interview last week.

A few school-finance bills came up in the legislature last year but either died quietly or were shot down as inadequate.

If lawmakers don't move soon to address at least the most glaring needs, the state may wind up back in court, said Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which represented the plaintiffs in the funding lawsuit.

But the governor will not call a special session to address school finance until lawmakers come up with a plan that will pass, Mr. Cole said.

Democratic lawmakers don't have nearly the number of signatures needed for their petition to call the body into a special session this fall before the regular session begins in January. Lawmakers on the bipartisan school-finance panel said they hope to have a consensus plan by November, but Sen. Patterson said that date is quickly becoming unrealistic.

All of which frustrates Mr. Ben of the San Carlos district. "We've been patient, but we're running out of patience fast," he said.

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