The cracks in the school walls are still spreading. The fire alarms sound too often or don’t sound at all. Mechanics struggle to keep old school buses running one more year. Budget managers try to figure out where the money will come from to fix leaky roofs, wheezing air-conditioners and broken vents.
Across Arizona, school districts struggle to find the funds to fix and maintain their buildings, in large part because state lawmakers over the past decade have countered laws and legal rulings meant to help all public-school facilities meet or exceed a basic standard.
Nearly 20 years ago, four cash-strapped Arizona school districts launched a landmark legal battle against the state’s system of relying on local bonds to pay for building and maintaining schools. They argued that leaving it to local property owners to foot the bill for school facilities through bonds left poor and rural districts scrambling to get by in run-down buildings that fell far below the promise, carved in Arizona’s Constitution, to provide a “general and uniform public-school system” for children across the state.
Arizona’s Supreme Court agreed. Under court pressure, in 1998 the Legislature passed the Students First law requiring the state to pay for and manage construction of most new schools and school renovations. It created the School Facilities Board to oversee the process, and budgeted $1.3 billion to begin fixing or replacing the shabbiest schools. It set minimum standards that school facilities had to meet — in effect, bridging the canyon that had separated the “have” from the “have-not” districts.