FIFE'S EMPTY PROMISE

SYMINGTON PLEDGED TO IDENTIFY AND FIX "URGENT" PROBLEMS IN THE STATE'S POOREST SCHOOLS. BUT HE NEVER EXPECTED A $103 MILLION TAB.

The letters "WPA" are stamped on the exterior of the buildings that make up Picacho Elementary School. That's because the buildings date to the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program launched in the 1930s.

Students at Picacho Elementary, which is located near Picacho Peak south of Casa Grande, are children of poor families, primarily migrant farm workers. Some live in homes, others live in trailers, motels and buses.

At school, they no longer have industrial arts, home economics, laboratory science or a full complement of physical education classes because their buildings are not safe.

The roof of the cafeteria, which also serves as the auditorium, is rotting and sagging. Exposed electrical wires run outside school buildings and open-flame heaters hang inside classrooms. One of the school's two buses, a 1974 model, was pulled off the street by the Department of Public Safety because it does not meet safety codes. The other is a 1973 model.

Picacho has the capacity to generate $36,000 in capital revenues. The cost of fixing one classroom is about $40,000, according to Superintendent David Curd. New buses cost about $80,000.

Picacho Elementary School District is not alone. It's also not likely to receive financial assistance any time soon, despite the promises of Governor Fife Symington.

Educators and lawmakers knew there were problems with the state's school-funding system long before the Arizona Supreme Court last year declared it inequitable and unconstitutional. It was a political hot potato that neither the legislature nor the governor seemed willing to take on until the court forced their hand.

Last fall, in the heat of a reelection campaign, Symington appointed then-superintendent of public instruction C. Diane Bishop to head a committee that included school administrators and representatives from the state Department of Buildings and Fire Safety and the state Department of Administration.

"There are some schools which cry out for action now!" Symington said in a September press release announcing formation of the Governor's School Facilities Advisory Committee. "The needs of these schools may require some legislative assistance during the 1995 regular legislative session."

The governor set a December 31 deadline for a recommendation for emergency money to schools.

". . . the committee will develop and recommend to me a process by which the state may begin to remedy the most urgent of these problems," Symington said in the release.

That committee, along with staff members from the Department of Education, reviewed the requests of schools from across the state and found $500 million in need.

Of that, the committee determined that a staggering $103 million of the need was critical, requiring immediate action.

Committee members John Baracy, superintendent of the Roosevelt Elementary School District in South Phoenix, and Curd, superintendent of the Picacho Elementary School District, say the committee directed Bishop to send the $103 million recommendation to the governor. They say Bishop told them there was a pool of about $100 million available for emergency school needs.

"As a committee member, I'm under the clear understanding that this would be addressed in this [1995] legislative session and that Ms. Bishop was bringing our recommendation to the governor," Baracy said.

But it didn't happen that way.
Jim Wilson, who led the staff for the committee from the Department of Education's finance unit, says he drafted the $103 million emergency-fund recommendation in December from the committee to the governor.

"I was charged to draft a memo. And then it was not used. Diane Bishop, when she left here and went to work with the governor, she hand-carried over not the memo but the summary to the governor's office, so I don't know what happened. It doesn't make sense," Wilson says.

Symington's office did not return phone calls.
Bishop, who endorsed Symington in his reelection bid, left office at the end of last year and was appointed by the governor as his education liaison.

Bishop says that the $103 million recommendation went to the legislative committee charged with overhauling the entire capital financing situation in the wake of the Supreme Court finding.

"He [Symington] is aware of it, but it was really our determination that it needed to go to the other committee where the work was being done so that something would happen with it because it didn't produce what we considered a good result," Bishop said. "It didn't produce things we could definitely say are very critical and were pressing needs that had to be dealt with right now."

Those comments left committee members stunned.
Both Curd and Baracy said they left when the committee disbanded in December, thinking their work was done and their recommendation was on its way to the governor, to be acted on immediately.

But Symington has promised a $200 million tax cut to the people of Arizona--a feat that would be difficult to accomplish if $103 million in emergency funds were allocated to crumbling schools.

Meanwhile, school districts like Maricopa Unified, which lies about 30 miles southwest of Tempe, are still stranded.

Maricopa has classroom roofs that leak, a building that's been condemned by the fire marshal and underground fuel storage tanks that have to be removed.

The district was supposed to remove asbestos from its ceilings in 1978, but it wasn't nearly the problem that it is now, since the roof is about to fall in and bring the asbestos with it.

Like Picacho, most of the population of Maricopa lives in poverty.
"I've never seen facilities that have been let go like this," says Superintendent Robert Sanchez. "We've got to make things safe for the kids.

 
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