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Ariz. OKs Finance Plan; New Challenge Expected

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The dead came back to life last week in Arizona.

That's what many observers were saying of a school finance bill that, on Day 29 of a special legislative session on school construction, narrowly passed the House by a final 31-29 vote.

Gov. Jane Dee Hull signed HB 2003 into law on April 9.

"This is a historic day for Arizona students. Now every student in Arizona will have a safe and well-built school," the Republican governor said in a statement.

But the debate appears far from over. The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which brought the original finance lawsuit against the state on behalf of poor districts, vowed late last week to return to court over the new law.

HB 2003 generally shifts the burden of building new schools from local districts to the state.

Bonding Compromise

Originally, HB 2003 sought to eliminate the time-honored system of passing voter-approved construction bonds to build schools. But in order to gain Senate passage, lawmakers added a provision that would allow individual districts that meet the state's minimum-adequacy standards for school facilities to opt out of the state plan and continue to use local bonds. Once it returned to the House, legislative leaders tried to pass the bill several times before garnering barely enough votes for final approval.

The opt-out provision, argued Jennifer Anderson, a lawyer representing the plaintiff districts in the finance suit, will create a two-tiered system: one for poor districts and another for wealthy ones. Before the provision was added, the center supported the legislature's plan.

"Our constitution calls for a general and uniform school system. This is neither," she said.

Supporters of the new law said last week that only a handful of the state's 227 districts would likely use the opt-out provision since it would mean a higher tax burden. In passing the bill, lawmakers apparently agreed that, should the opt-out measure prove unconstitutional, they would review the entire finance law.

Since 1994, when the state supreme court ordered the legislature to create a more equitable system of paying for school construction and maintenance, lawmakers have been debating how to comply. They had to meet a court-imposed June 30 deadline or face a cutoff of state aid to schools. ("Arizona Ponders Making School Bond Issues History," March 25, 1998.)

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