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Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as Ariz. High Court Again Rules Finance Plan Unconstitutional

Ariz. High Court Again Rules Finance Plan Unconstitutional

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For the fourth time in as many years, the Arizona Supreme Court last week ruled unconstitutional the state's plan to create a more equitable finance system for school construction.

The legislature's latest plan, signed into law in April, failed to create a "general and uniform school system," the court said in its June 16 decision.

Lawmakers had been working under a court-imposed June 30 deadline to pass a plan that met legal muster or face a cutoff of state school aid. The court last week extended the deadline to Aug. 15, just weeks before the state's Sept. 8 primary election.

Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who, like lawmakers, faces voters in the fall, was quick to assure parents last week that schools will be running as usual in August.

"I am proud that we have come this far, and we intend to complete the task," she said a written statement. "Now is the time for all of us to resolve the last remaining issues. Now is not the time to play partisan politics."

In April, after a grueling special session on school finance, the governor signed into law a bill that originally sought to eliminate the time-honored system of passing voter-approved construction bonds to build schools and replace it with a state aid plan. But legislative leaders did not have the votes to pass the plan until lawmakers added a provision to allow some districts to opt out. School systems that met the state's minimum-adequacy standards for school facilities could continue to use local bonds. ("Ariz. OKs Finance Plan; New Challenge Expected," April 15, 1998.)

That opt-out provision--coupled with differences in access to local tax dollars between districts that opt out and those that participate in the state plan--creates disparities in districts' ability to build and maintain schools, the supreme court found.

"Differences between districts that result from disparate property wealth or voter willingness to fund capital improvements are not unconstitutional. Differences perpetuated by the financing system itself are unconstitutional," the court said in its unanimous ruling.

Avoiding Square One?

A spokeswoman for the governor said last week that Ms. Hull did not know when she would call back legislators to the capital for a special session. Both Ms. Hull and state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan noted that the court ruling declared that the state had partially satisfied the court's requirements by creating minimum-adequacy standards for facilities and ensuring that all districts can comply with the standards.

Some observers suggested last week that legislative leaders might try to simply strip the opt-out provision, leaving the rest of the plan intact. This time around, lawmakers eager to return to campaigning for re-election might be more willing to forgo the opt-out, some suggested.

"Given the time constraints imposed by the court, it would be foolhardy to start from square one when we have a constitutional plan," Ms. Keegan, a Republican, said in a statement.

In 1994, the high court ruled in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of poor districts that Arizona's system of paying for school facilities violated the state constitution. Since the ruling, the legislature has made several attempts to change the system, but each has been shot down by the courts.

Lawyers representing the plaintiff districts had supported the latest plan until lawmakers added the opt-out provision. Whether legislators can muster the political will to pass a plan that meets legal requirements remains to be seen, said Jennifer Anderson, a lawyer with the Center for Law in the Public Interest, based in Phoenix.

"I don't think they want two months of headlines about how incompetent the legislature is," she said.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Page 23

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