Senate OKs dissolving school funding board
Arizona Republic
April 24, 2008


The panel denied repairs to Corona High's ventilation system

Scott Wong

State lawmakers 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 appointment power.

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 impressive.

"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 levels.

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 said.

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.