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Ariz. Construction Funds Come Up Short, Critics Say

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Despite passage of a new $30 million school-construction program, recent headlines in Arizona newspapers about the state's troubled school-finance system were eerily familiar.

"School-funding crisis demands fix," The Mesa Tribune reported. "Try, try again," a recent editorial in The Arizona Republic read.

When the legislature adjourned its regular session late last month, lawmakers had approved the $30 million grant-and-loan fund to help the poorest schools build or repair buildings that are deemed health or safety "emergencies." But even those who cast their votes for the construction bill have deemed it woefully inadequate. Estimates of the state's emergency school building needs range from $50 million to $100 million.

Nearly two years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the state's school-finance system was unconstitutional because of vast disparities among districts in school construction, building maintenance, and equipment.

The court did not spell out specific remedies or a deadline in its July 1994 ruling, but called on the legislature to correct the facilities disparities within a "reasonable" time.

In the legislature's 1995 session, a few school-finance bills came up but died quietly or were shot down as inadequate. Lawmakers commissioned studies of schools' capital needs and set up a panel to delve into the issue, but the group has been unable to produce a politically tenable plan.

Now, cash-strapped schools seeking changes from the state that go beyond the $30 million fund are hoping for a special legislative session later this spring or summer devoted to finance reform.

"I don't think the legislature has the heart to go in and spend time to deal with this," said Mary Kay Haviland, the director of government relations for the 30,000-member Arizona Education Association. "They tend to deal with things more on an emergency basis. And this hasn't become an emergency with them right now."

'Less Than Band-Aid'

The finance issue has put Republican Gov. Fife Symington and the Republican state schools superintendent, Lisa Graham Keegan, at loggerheads.

The governor does not intend to call a special session and believes that the $30 million fund takes care of the "immediate problems" with school finance, said Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for Mr. Symington.

Ms. Graham Keegan strongly disagrees.

"We're under the gun with plaintiffs who aren't happy with how the state addressed the ruling, that's the bottom line," said Patricia A. Likens, a spokeswoman for the elected schools chief. "And I don't think anybody here wants the courts to decide how we fund our schools."

By month's end, the superintendent plans to release the details of a broad finance-reform plan she outlined last fall in the hopes of fostering a consensus around it. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

The courts may well end up with the final say. In December, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which represented the districts that filed the funding lawsuit, asked the court to set a June 1 deadline for the legislature. But a Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected the group's request, citing a lack of evidence to define "reasonable time."

Now that the plaintiffs have seen what the regular session produced--a plan that the center's executive director, Timothy M. Hogan, branded "less than a Band-Aid"--they intend to quickly go back to court. They want the judge to tell the legislature to fix the system by the end of the year. If lawmakers fail to act by then, the group would like to see the court halt the state's entire finance system on Jan. 1, 1997.

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