School districts under federal desegregation orders would be forced to ask the state for money to pay some costs under a new plan being considered by state lawmakers.
Traditionally, Arizona has provided an exemption to school district spending limits to raise funds for programs intended to end discrimination against minority students. Seventeen school districts currently use that exemption, including Mesa and Scottsdale unified school districts and Tempe Elementary School District.
But the Legislature put a two-year freeze on growth in desegregation spending in 2002 because of claims that some districts were using the exemption to circumvent overall limits.
The Arizona Tax Research Association estimates a total of $47 million was spent on desegregation programs in 1991, growing to $194 million in 2002.
"I think a lot of schools are hiding behind (desegregation) to have a free rein to the tax system," said Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, whose district includes portions of western Scottsdale, Cave Creek and Carefree.
But school districts defeated an effort last year to make the freeze permanent, saying they are being forced to shift millions of dollars from other areas for desegregation programs.
Rep. Steve Huffman, RTucson, is offering a new approach this year. The cap on desegregation spending would stay, but school districts could apply to the Arizona Department of Education for additional funds. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates the plan could cost the state $54 million to $126 million in the next two years.
But Huffman admitted he wouldn’t expect every request to be met.
"Unlimited property taxes is not the answer," Huffman said. "The state has to be involved if we are going to get a handle on this."
School districts said they understand why lawmakers want to stop the unlimited exemption to spending caps. But they said Huffman’s plan doesn’t guarantee the districts will get the money they need.
"The federal government will not come back to the state of Arizona and say, ‘Why isn’t Scottsdale complying?’ " said Christine Schild, a member of the Scottsdale governing board. "They’ll come to me and my other board members and say, ‘We’re going to impose consequences for your failure to comply.’ "
Mike Smith, lobbyist for the Tempe elementary district, said lawmakers should create a flexible limit on desegregation spending that can grow with inflation and student population.
Huffman’s proposal was adopted Wednesday as a strike-everything amendment to HB2266 by the House Education Committee. The bill now goes to the Ways and Means Committee for consideration.