Bill slashing desegregation funding could cost TUSD millions

The Arizona Daily Star
Monday, February 9, 2015
Alexis Huicochea

February 04, 2015 7:36 pm • By Alexis Huicochea
A state lawmaker’s bid to reduce desegregation spending may cost TUSD as much as $8 million next year and far more in the ensuing years — funds that are earmarked to help bring racial balance to district campuses.

Sen. Debbie Lesko’s SB 1371 calls for cutting desegregation funding incrementally over 10 years, eventually wiping out the $64 million that Tucson Unified School District receives annually. The $8 million would be the first installment, taking effect in fiscal 2016-17.

Lesko says it is unfair that certain school districts get extra money while others do not, and thus she is working to “phase it out gently.”

TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez argues, however, that the additional money —$64 million a year — is not unrestricted funding.

Unlike in the past, when desegregation money was used at the discretion of the district and Governing Board, there is now a review process requiring every dollar spent to be accounted for.

For Lesko and the Arizona Tax Research Association, which recommended the legislation, it’s a matter of equity.

Lesko admitted on Wednesday she initially introduced the defunding bill under the incorrect assumption TUSD is no longer under court order. After learning that is not the case, Lesko said she plans to do further research, and may consider amending the bill to provide an exemption for districts like TUSD that are still monitored by the courts and have obligations they are required to meet.

Her original intention was to phase out the desegregation funding for districts that were at one time under court order but no longer are, and that continue to collect additional taxpayer dollars.

“I think it’s unfair to tax property owners for something they no longer have a court order for,” Lesko said.

She said she also thinks it unfair that neighboring school districts don’t get the same funding, but they have to compete for students.

Added Kevin McCarthy, president of ATRA: “We think that it offends the entire constitutional framework for school funding in Arizona. The constitution calls for a funding of schools that is general and uniform. There is probably nothing more violative of that uniformity clause on the (maintenance and operations) side of our schools than what is allowed with the relatively few school districts that are allowed additional spending outside of budget limits for desegregation.”

While Lesko says TUSD may have a case for receiving additional funds, she questioned to what extent.

“Do they really need $63 million a year more in extra money?” Lesko said. “I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

Lesko says the tax rate in Tucson Unified is so high, the state is on the hook for anything beyond the maximum levy for residential property owners — roughly $20 million.

“My contention is, that’s $20 million we could save the state general fund and it could be distributed to all school districts, that would be much more fair,” Lesko said.

Both Lesko and McCarthy argued desegregation funds are being used to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, giving those districts an unfair advantage over others that don’t have that spending power.

In TUSD’s case, however, only teachers who meet the needs of the Unitary Status Plan have a portion of their salaries paid for with desegregation money, and those funds are not used in any case to pay teachers more, Sanchez said.

Last December, TUSD was forced to remove bilingual teachers, psychologists, sociologists and an arts program from the desegregation budget because the court ruled that it did not fit the goals of the Unitary Status Plan — a road map designed to help the district get out from under the decades-old federal order.

Additionally, all desegregation-funded initiatives have to go above and beyond what the district is already doing with maintenance and operation dollars, Sanchez said.

“If the money is phased out, the court order stays until the court agrees that we’ve met the obligation … the court requirements don’t go away with it,” Sanchez said.

Services at risk include African-American student services, Mexican-American student services, dropout specialists, translators and an array of other support personnel, Sanchez said.

Sanchez said if TUSD were not still under a court order the bill might make sense, but that isn’t the case, and as a result the district must comply with a number of court orders that require spending money.

Sanchez is also concerned the bill was initiated not by a citizens tax reform group, but from a group representing mining interests, power companies and big landholders who “benefit whenever taxes decrease.”

ATRA, however, says this has nothing to do with whom the association “supposedly” represents, noting the association has members in every taxpaying category, from major businesses to agricultural interests, homeowners and many others.

The proposal stems from ATRA’s belief that desegregation levies are one of the top candidates that undermine equity across districts, McCarthy said.

“Taxpayers also have a legitimate claim towards an argument that the system ought to be general and uniform,” he added. “That in addition to laws that govern the equity across districts, taxpayers ought to not be put in position where they pay extraordinary amounts more for their K-12 schools than other taxpayers do,” something McCarthy said TUSD taxpayers have done for decades to “fund something that appears, by what everybody would concede, is going nowhere.”

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to hear the bill on Feb. 11.

Also impacting TUSD would be a similar proposition for school districts using desegregation funds for Office of Civil Rights agreements with the U.S. Department of Education, requiring an annual reduction of at least 15 percent for five consecutive fiscal years. Both Cholla and Pueblo high schools used desegregation funds to comply with Office of Civil Rights agreements, Sanchez said