TUSD's desegregation gravy train may derail

Tucson Citzen
Thursday, February 6, 2003
Mark Kimble

Steve Huffman is coming to the rescue of beleaguered taxpayers who pay the bills for the Tucson Unified School District - and TUSD is not happy about it.

Huffman is a Republican who represents northwest Tucson in the state House. And he has introduced a bill that - if passed - will make it far more difficult for TUSD and 18 other Arizona school districts to increase taxes by virtually any amount with the public unable to do anything about it.

Huffman and the 12 other sponsors of the bill are taking aim at desegregation funding - a scheme that TUSD has perfected to an art form - allowing it to suck hundreds of millions of dollars from the wallets of taxpayers.

There are other Arizona districts that do the same thing, but none of them have gone as hog-wild as TUSD, which has become addicted to the extra money.

"This is unacceptable," Huffman said of desegregation spending. "It creates a financial mechanism with no oversight and no limits."

And like an addict, there is going to be a lot of wailing and whimpering and pain if TUSD is forced to go through involuntarily withdrawal.

Sam Polito, a lobbyist who represents TUSD and other school districts at the Legislature, called the bill "rather draconian."

"The desegregation districts are opposed to it in toto," he added.

How did we get into this mess? It started a quarter-century ago.

In 1978, TUSD was ordered by a federal judge to desegregate its schools. Although this sounds like an adversarial action that TUSD might oppose, it was actually the best thing that ever happened to the district's finances.

It's apparently more expensive to operate desegregated schools than segregated ones. So state law allows a district to budget - outside of normal state limitations - an unlimited amount for expenses that a district claims are needed to comply with a desegregation order.

There are no checks, no balances. If the district says it needs the money for desegregation, there isn't a darn thing any of us can do about it.

TUSD started to toss money into its desegregation budget in 1983-84. That year, desegregation spending was only $2.1 million - less than 1.3 percent of the total budget.

But over the years, minority students apparently have become much more expensive to teach. This year, the district has desegregation spending of $62.5 million - 18.9 percent of its budget.

No Arizona school district spends as much on alleged desegregation efforts. The 19 districts plan to spend a total of $196.3 million on desegregation efforts this year.

No one would object to spending the money if it were really going to desegregation efforts. But it goes for cell phone airtime, safety training, office supplies, electricians, locksmiths, painters, plumbers, dental hygienists, clerical overtime and all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with desegregation.

If Huffman has his way, school districts would have to submit all their proposed desegregation spending plans to a committee within the state Department of Education. After reviewing the plans, the state could approve the spending plan, reduce it or reject it.

And if a school district tries to get around the spending limits by going to voters for an election allowing them to override state spending limits, desegregation spending would have to be broken out, allowing voters to vote it up or down separately.

There is no indication that TUSD actually has a goal in mind - a plan to achieve desegregated schools. And why should it? If a federal judge says schools are desegregated, the gravy train is turned off.

Under Huffman's bill, after three years of desegregation spending, districts would have to explain why they hadn't yet complied with the court order and why more desegregation funding is needed. Without an adequate explanation, future desegregation spending would be cut off.

Just spending money and endlessly treading water - as TUSD has been doing for a quarter-century - would no longer be permitted.

That part of the bill is especially worrisome to school districts. "It's rather draconian that after three years all the funding goes away," lobbyist Polito said.

This isn't the first time that the state has tried to put clamps on the unregulated desegregation windfall. In 1996, then-Gov. Fife Symington proposed that school districts under desegregation orders be required to ask judges to lift those orders if they were no longer needed. With no court order, there could be no extra desegregation spending.

The plan had no support from school districts and failed.

Last year, the Legislature approved a Huffman bill that froze desegregation spending at current levels for two years until something more permanent could be done. This year's bill may be that permanent fix.

School districts are ready to oppose the bill - no big shock there - by claiming that it is an unconstitutional intrusion into a federal court order or settlement. Should it pass and be signed into law, "We may have to go to federal court to get an injunction" preventing its implementation, school district lobbyist Polito said.

Huffman has anticipated that challenge. "The courts don't give them the money," he said. "And these are not the court's children."

Huffman knows he has a fight from school districts ahead of him - but is confident that taxpayers will welcome the controls.

"This will be a way to have better oversight and better accountability," he said. "And we're going to make sure the money is really going to solve the civil rights issues."

Is it any surprise TUSD is opposed?