Plan to sue over TUSD deseg levy is dropped

The Arizona Daily Star
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Rhonda Bodfield

A conservative think tank and a taxpayer-advocacy organization have backed off plans to sue the Tucson Unified School District in an attempt to clamp down on the millions of dollars it gets every year in desegregation funding.

The Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Tax Research Association had been readying for a bid to challenge the constitutionality of the district's levy to help bring schools into racial balance, preparing to argue that it's illegal to levy unlimited property taxes for an unlimited time without voter approval.

But a shift in the state's political climate and a resulting legislative fix appear to have resolved the issue.

The Legislature, dominated by Phoenix interests, has kicked around desegregation measures for years, in part because the state ends up picking up some of the tab, given limits on how much homeowners must contribute. It passed a soft cap in 2004 to limit increases to enrollment and inflation growth.

In 2005, an effort to cap districts at their 2005 funding levels was vetoed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, who wrote that it failed to adjust for growth in student enrollment and transportation costs.

Tax Research Director Kevin McCarthy said Gov. Jan Brewer's ascension to the state's top post gave renewed hope.

And indeed, one sentence in the 156-page education budget bill was a provision that caps spending at the 2008-09 school-year level. TUSD will not be able to raise more than the $64 million in desegregation funding it raised this year. Although Brewer line-item vetoed portions of the bill, the desegregation reference stood.

TUSD and Phoenix Union are the only two of 19 districts levying the funding that are operating under an official court decree. The others have administrative agreements with the U.S. Department of Education. TUSD — the state's second-largest district — has a higher desegregation levy than any other district in the state.

When TUSD settled a class-action lawsuit filed by Hispanic and black parents in 1978, the district, like all others, was subject to statutory spending limits.

Initially, the federal government agreed to provide emergency aid to help the district establish "magnet" schools, which were designed with extras such as special programs, reading specialists, additional money for supplies and more teachers to attract students from neighborhoods across the city to create a more racially integrated district.

As federal funding dried up, the state Legislature for the 1986-87 budget year permitted the district to raise its property-tax levy above the statutory limit to continue desegregation efforts.

Decades later, the district is still in the process of getting out from under the order, which a judge conditionally lifted but has yet to finalize. When that happens, however, the district will be able to keep its desegregation levy.

TUSD lobbyist Sam Polito said the district didn't contest the legislative change because the district has lived with the soft freeze for several years. Student enrollment has been dropping in the district as well.

Goldwater's Clint Bolick said he remains convinced the desegregation levy is fraught with problems. Voters should be able to weigh in on whether they want to support excess school expenditures, he said, noting that he believed the statute allowing the levy went further than what was mandated by the federal court order. It also led to funding inequities among school districts, he said.

"We believed we could show that Tucson and other districts were making expenditures that have little or nothing to do with desegregation," Bolick said. "It really was a scam. We felt that it would be a very strong case and we still think, if the problem remains, that it would be a very strong case. But we'd rather have the war ended by surrender rather than have to do battle in court."