Bubblegum Only Holds For So Long

The Arizona Republic reported this morning that two Glendale Elementary School District (GESD) schools would be closed for up to five weeks for structural deficiencies uncovered during a weatherization project. Inspections by architects and structural engineers found “varying degrees of damage to outside walls in every building on campus” said Jim Cummings, spokesman for Glendale Elementary.

What Glendale is experiencing, though, is just a peek at what is to come statewide. One of the GESD schools, after all, was built in the 1920s. Likewise, the majority of Yuma Elementary School District facilities are over 50 years old. In my district, Oracle Elementary, most of our facilities are over 40 years old and one was built in 1938. These are just a few examples of our aging district infrastructure in the Arizona.

In 1998, the National Center for Education Statistics reported the median age of schools in the West as 39 years, with 25 percent of the schools built before 1950. Admittedly, this report is old and, doesn’t hone in on Arizona, but current Arizona data just isn’t available. Thing is, it should be.
In 1994, the Arizona Supreme Court declared the state’s systems of school capital finance unconstitutional because it failed to conform to the state constitution’s “general and uniform” clause. “The system relied on the secondary property tax, driven by the property wealth of a school district, and general obligation bonding.” Under a court order to develop a constitutional system of school capital finance, then Governor Hull signed legislation to create Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today.) Late in 1999, the State Facilities Board (SFB) “adopted Building Adequacy Guidelines that now serve as the minimum standards for existing and new school facilities in Arizona.”

 Part of the new Students FIRST law established a deficiencies correction fund to help correct deficiencies in existing school facilities. The SFB was charged with adopting rules setting minimum adequacy guidelines for school facilities, assessing the facilities against those guidelines, and providing funds to get the buildings up to snuff. The SFB finished a statewide assessment of all 1,210 schools and 1,410 building sites, including fix cost, in April 2001. Over $740 million in 5,963 “hard construction” deficiency projects were identified including 904 roofs and 233 fire-alarm systems. By law, the existing deficiencies were supposed to be fixed by June 30, 2004.

The law also established a building renewal fund to maintain the adequacy of existing facilities and a new school facilities fund to construct new schools to meet minimum adequacy guidelines. The entire program was to be funded by appropriations from the State General Fund versus property taxes to level the playing field, but this change also made it easy for the Legislature to repurpose the funds. In fact, the only year the building-renewal fund was fully funded was in 2001, and from 2008 to 2012; school districts only got two cents of every dollar they should have received. To make matters worse, the state stopped providing dedicated funding for preventative maintenance. The repealed Building Renewal statute allowed school districts to use eight percent of their building renewal formula amounts for routine preventative maintenance but no more. And as if it makes everything better, the SFB strategic plan states that they “have expanded the preventative maintenance training and inspections to ‘counterbalance the lack of funding.'” I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty ludicrous to me. First, you take away the funding for building renewal, then you train the districts on how to do preventative maintenance (with no funding mind you), and then you inspect whether the maintenance was done even though no funding was provided to do it. Right…makes perfect sense.

The failure of the Legislature to meet its obligations, has led Tim Hogan, executive director of The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (ACLPI), to file a suit. Déjà vu since Hogan is the lawyer who filed the suit in the 90s. Yes, that suit. The one that resulted in “legislators agree[ing] to spend $1.3 billion to bring every school in the state up to a minimum standard, to create a formula to fund school renovations, and to pay for it out of the state’s general fund rather than out of local property taxes.” Glendale Elementary School District has already signed on to join Hogan’s new effort to force compliance. According to Jim Cummings, “the district voted to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit because the legislature eliminated all capital funding and GESD couldn’t raise enough through bonds to meet its capital needs.” Since the legislature eliminated capital funding, GESD has lost $18.7 million despite increasing enrollment. In 2015, Hogan said, “In each of the last two years, the amount appropriated has been about $16 million, far short of the $500 million needed by Arizona school districts.” He went on to say “The state has totally reneged on the commitment that it made to the Supreme Court at the time Students FIRST was presented for approval.”

Let’s be clear. The $3.5B that Prop. 123 will deliver over 10 years to Arizona’s district schools is money that was already due them (actually only 70 percent) per voter mandate and court order. It was funding designed to allow Prop. 301 funding (for facilities, teacher compensation, school performance measurement, statewide database and more) to keep up with inflation. It was not new funding. Yes, it is true that Prop. 123 funding came without strings attached. The majority of districts, though, used it to increase their teachers’ salaries, a more immediate need given the critical shortage of teachers in our state and the looming retirement of many of those who are currently teaching.

It is clear that our district schools are ever-increasingly being forced into making “the lesser of all evils” choices to keep the doors open, teachers retained, and students enrolled and well-educated. Our state legislature is playing games with the future of the one-plus million children that attend Arizona’s district schools. Please remember this when you cast your vote either before or on November 8th. If you want better for Arizona’s children, you MUST vote for candidates who share that vision and have the political will to deliver it. Anything else is just noise.

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