Senate OKs dissolving school funding board
April 24, 2008
The panel denied repairs to Corona High's ventilation system
on Wednesday voted to dissolve the Arizona board that oversees funding for K-12
public-school facilities, citing a variety of concerns, including the panel's
handling of ventilation problems at Tempe's Corona del Sol High School.
But many say the Senate's move was a political stunt intended to send a message
to the School Facilities Board and Gov. Janet Napolitano, who appoints nearly
all of the board's members, that the funding system needs to be overhauled.
Few believe the Legislature is serious about terminating the board. It is
responsible for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars each year for school
construction and repairs.
"I don't see this vote as the Senate saying that the School Facilities Board
needs to go away," said the board's executive director, John Arnold. "I see this
as the continuation bill had some issues."
On a 10-18 vote, the Senate failed to pass House Bill 2232, an emergency measure
that would have extended the School Facilities Board for two years. Without
further legislative action, the board will be eliminated on July 1. The
Senate could reconsider the issue at any time before the session ends.
Some lawmakers said they were troubled by an amendment to the bill that would
allow school districts to levy a tax - without voter approval - in certain
emergency situations. Others opposed a provision that would have allowed the
governor to maintain control over most of the nine appointed members.
Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park, said his main gripe was that the
facilities board had voted against using emergency funds to pay for Corona's
failing air system.
Studies show that the decades-old system has led to poor air quality, mold and
high carbon-dioxide levels. Those issues are being blamed for incidents of
cancer and respiratory illness among staff and students.
"How bad does a school have to be before it is declared an emergency? I think it
is a travesty that this has been going on this long," Blendu said after the
vote. "If they don't think this is an emergency, we need someone else in the
decision-making process. If we have to do away with the board to get rid of
these people, maybe that's what we have to do."
Arnold defended his board, pointing out that the Legislature created it a decade
ago and gave it the authority to make funding decisions for school construction.
"The board takes that authority very seriously," he said. "They reviewed the
case and felt that they applied the law based on the way the law is written."
The board was established in 1998 through legislation that changed the way
construction for K-12 public schools is funded.
The legislation, known as Students FIRST, addressed a 1994 Arizona Supreme Court
ruling that the state's system of financing school capital projects was
unconstitutional. The court said that the system, which relied on local property
taxes, created funding disparities among school districts.
The facilities board's 2007-08 budget was more than $530 million, including $370
million for new-school construction. An additional $72 million was earmarked for
repairs and upgrades.
Sen. Bob Burns, R-Peoria, voted to continue the facilities board. But when he
saw the bill going down, he changed his vote so that it could be reconsidered at
a later date.
"I don't think it's the best system in the world, but we need to have an
alternative," Burns said.
The bill also would have changed the dynamic of the board, requiring that four
of its members be appointed by the Legislature. Under the proposal, both the
Senate president and House speaker would make two appointments each.
An amendment, however, would have allowed the governor to retain much of her
That didn't sit well with Senate Majority Whip John Huppenthal, who said
lawmakers need to have a say in who serves on the board. He noted that the
governor currently appoints nine members, and said their recent work hasn't been
"They didn't do such a good job with the Corona case," said Huppenthal,
R-Chandler, who has constituents who attend the high school.
The Corona community had been closely following the bill because it included an
amendment that would have allowed school districts, such as Corona's Tempe
Unified, to levy a tax to pay for emergencies related to harmful carbon-dioxide
The Senate had tentatively OK'd the amended bill on Monday, giving some hope
that funding would come through.
Melanie Zimmer, whose teenager is set to attend Corona in August, said if
air-quality is not improved she'll enroll her son elsewhere. She recently joined
a Corona parent group, Corona Clean Air Coalition, to lobby the state for
emergency funding to improve the school's air quality.
"I'm very disappointed to hear this (failed). It had bipartisan support," Zimmer
Steve Adolph, Tempe Unified's superintendent, was "devastated" when he learned
that the bill failed, said district spokeswoman Linda Littell.
Adolph plans to continue working with a citizens committee to place a district
bond on the November ballot, which, if approved by voters, would fund repairs to
Corona's ventilation system, Littell said. However, those funds would not be
available until after January, delaying the system upgrades.
Reporters Mary Jo Pitzl and Dianna Nanez contributed to this article.