FIGHT ON THE PLAYGROUNDA RUCKUS APPROACHES AS POOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS BATTLE FOR FUNDING

Every Arizona politician elected this year, from Governor Fife Symington down, claims to support education. And an upcoming public-interest lawsuit, aimed at helping impoverished areas build decent schools, will give these politicians a chance to put their money where their mouths are.

Underneath the warm and fuzzy rhetoric, however, a buzz saw of political opposition awaits anyone who tries to hike education revenues in Arizona, observers say. Among the first casualties of the battle will be the pretense of solidarity among educators from rich and poor school districts.

"Obviously, there is a problem with the formula for school funding," says Senate President Pete Rios, a Democrat from economically depressed eastern Arizona. "But it works just fine for the wealthier districts. Opposition to changing the status quo will come from the wealthier school districts and their representatives."

Considerably less sympathetic than Rios is Bev Hermon, a Tempe Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. Now is not the time for education proponents to go looking for more money, she says. Hermon says she intended to introduce legislation this session to rectify funding inequalities between rich and poor districts but decided "it just wasn't the time because of the budgetary situation."

And she worries that some taxpayers "such as utilities or others with large industrial plants" could be treated unfairly under reforms proposed for the system. The state's electric utilities, whose multimillion-dollar power plants constitute the main taxable asset in some school districts, already have taken the state to court to overturn one school tax they consider onerous.

To recap recent events: The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest confirms that it will soon file suit to reform state funding of schools. The expected lawsuit, in the works for a year, got extra impetus last week when the federal Department of Education announced that Arizona's school funding discriminates against poor districts.

"The formula for funding capital improvements, such as new school buildings, is so inequitable we believe it violates the state Constitution," says Tim Hogan, director of the public-advocacy law firm.

The result, he says, is glaring disparities in facilities between districts. "In Douglas, people would take their umbrellas to basketball games because the roof was falling in on them, literally, and there was no money to fix it," Hogan says. "At the same time, other school districts were building domed stadiums and indoor swimming pools."

The inequity persists even though most poor communities tax themselves at a higher rate than do the wealthy ones, he claims. "The problem is not their willingness to tax themselves, it's the size of the asset base," Hogan notes.

Districts with a large asset base can pass budget overrides or bond issues to build new schools and athletic facilities or to conduct repairs such as asbestos removal. Poor communities with small asset bases can't raise sufficient money that way and, under the present system, Hogan notes, can't ask the state for extra help, either.

An aide to Symington, who is expected to name a committee to study education reform this week, says the Center's lawsuit would not be helpful. "The governor has already said this is one of the issues to be discussed," says Doug Cole, Symington's press aide. "We've acknowledged [school funding] is a problem. It seems like a waste to spend money on lawyers at this point."

Rios, however, says it's probably necessary "to force us to get off the dime." The Republicans, he claims, have paid nothing but lip service to the problem to date.

"To a large extent, I welcome the lawsuit, to be truthful," says Rios, who ironically is likely to be a defendant because of his position in the Arizona State Legislature.

"I've been here [in the state legislature] for eight years while it was under Republican domination," Rios says. "And every year the Senate chairman [of the Education panel] has said it's a problem, they'd appoint a committee, they'd do something. And it's never happened; they always come up with an excuse."

Under the current method, set by the legislature in 1981, state aid for capital improvements is based solely on student numbers. "Such things as the age of existing facilities, their condition, are not even considered," says Hogan. "Indeed, the state does not even keep track of what the districts' needs are.

"The whole system is backward. The state sets funding and the school districts do what they can with it, rather than determining what each district needs and then building a budget around that."

Many of the schools in the sixty school districts to be represented in the lawsuit don't even meet current building codes, Hogan says. "Some of these districts are using schools built sixty or seventy years ago."

Hermon says the feds would like to see all school districts charging the same tax rate, with the excess monies from wealthy districts going into a common fund. "I begin to get uncomfortable with taxpayer equity because some unfair things could shake out on the taxpayer side," Hermon says. "Industrial plants are taxed on 30 percent of their assessed valuation as it is, so if you raised the tax rate, they'd get hurt." (Homeowners, by comparison, are taxed on 10 percent of the assessed value of their property.)

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