Settlement talks collapse in school funding lawsuit
The battle over school spending in Arizona got a little more complicated last week after settlement talks in a lawsuit over education funding broke down.
A coalition of education advocates—including the Arizona Education Association, the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials—sued the state, saying that lawmakers had failed to properly adjust funding for inflation and population growth in the 2011 budget. The Arizona Supreme Court sided with the school districts and sent the case back down to Maricopa County Superior Court, where a judge ruled that lawmakers needed to add more than $300 million to this year's school budget to account for the failure to provide proper funding. Left unresolved in that decision was the question of whether the state owed more than a billion dollars for the previous years that lawmakers didn't adjust funding.
Lawmakers asked for a chance to work things out in confidential settlement talks, which ended last week after the attorneys for the schools said they weren't getting anywhere.
So it's back to court, although the Arizona School Boards Association representatives told the press last week that they'd be willing to settle as long as lawmakers were willing to add $330 million to current funding and continue to adjust for inflation in the future.
Republican legislative leaders have argued that the bill should be only $72 million this year because in budget years before 2011, lawmakers increased funding by more than the rate of inflation, so they should get credit for that.
That's a question that the courts will have to decide as the case moves forward, but lawmakers have been known to let these things drag on rather than resolve them, even when a court order is involved. In the 1990s, a more moderate legislature allowed a lawsuit over school construction and repair to drag on for eight years before resolving it. (And the state still isn't taking care of needed repairs at many schools.)
In the wake of last week's decision, legislative Democrats called on the GOP majority to use the state budget surplus—which ended up being about $325 million—to fund the schools. As House Democratic Leader Eric Meyer (D-Paradise Valley) put it: "If the Republican leaders in Arizona were serious about getting money into classrooms now, they would use the $325 million projected surplus. Instead they are using smoke and mirrors to play political games with the future of Arizona kids."
Meanwhile, House Speaker David Gowan and Senate President Andy Biggs told the press that they had a plan—details remain sketchy—to provide up to $500 million a year in more education funding by spending more general-fund dollars and snatching additional funds from the state land trust and the First Things First program, a voter-created fund supported by tobacco taxes. Voters would have to approve the taking funds from state land trust and First Things First—and in the case of First Things First, voters have already rejected that plan once.
Both Gowan and Biggs vowed to oppose any tax increase for education programs, saying that "there is clearly no interest to increase taxes" to support schools.
Gov. Doug Ducey said he was "disappointed" that talks had broken down, but he remains just as opposed as Biggs and Gowan to increasing taxes to fund schools. Instead, he's continuing to push his initiative to use money from the state land trust, even though dipping into that fund will reduce education funding for future generations—a prime reason his proposal is being opposed by Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit.
It's all going to make for a big knot to untangle when the legislative session starts in January—and in the meantime, Arizona's kids continue to attend schools that are being shortchanged.
Planned Parenthood gets big donation to expand meeting space at Tucson office
Planned Parenthood Arizona will be remodeling its Tucson office thanks to a $100,000 donation from a benefactor.
The gift from Tucson philanthropist Bonnie Kay will allow Planned Parenthood to add 3,000 square feet of meeting space at its headquarters in the Tucson Medical Center neighborhood.
Planned Parenthood Arizona President and CEO Bryan Howard said the space "is going to be huge for the role that we are playing there."
Planned Parenthood staffers will be able host meetings on sexual and reproductive health that now take place at libraries and other spaces around Pima County.
"We are the home for this topic and it's a safe place to come and have this conversation," Howard said.
That conversation is even more important as Arizona schools fail to provide much in the way of sex ed, leaving teens and young adults to get information about sex from either their parents, their peers or web sites that may or may not be providing reliable information.
Howard called the current state of sex ed in most school districts "somewhere between AWOL and abysmal. Many school districts avoid the subject altogether and some school districts are on the abstinence-only bandwagon, which leaves young people particularly unprepared because all those curricula really talk about is the failure rate of contraception rather than the relative success rate."
Planned Parenthood officials are trying to work with schools at the district level to develop new sex-ed programs. In Southern Arizona, the organization is working the nonprofit Child and Family Resources and the Sunnyside School District.
"We believe that sexual health education ought to be core curriculum from state level on down," Howard says. "But we also recognize in the current legislative environment, that is not going to happen."
The donation comes as Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country are wrestling with the fallout of the release of undercover videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood officials were trafficking fetal body parts. In the wake of the videos, Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and Congress are launching new investigations into Planned Parenthood and calling for an end to all federal funding for the nonprofit and its state-based affiliates.
Howard said that Planned Parenthood Arizona has never participated in tissue-donation programs. Arizona law forbids the use of tissue from aborted fetuses in research except in narrow circumstances.
The Arizona Department of Health Services recently completed an investigation ordered by Gov. Doug Ducey into any tissue-donation programs. The investigation found that no abortion provider in Arizona has been participating in such programs. Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ also created an emergency rule that added four questions to a form that is filled out in the wake of any abortion in Arizona. The questions revolve around whether any tissue was donated; if no tissue was donated, the abortion provider doesn't need any additional information.
Howard said he thought Christ "responded in a very professional way" but noted that the furor over tissue donation "has been a tragic sideshow."
Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel will be taking a Labor Day weekend vacation but will return on Sunday, Sept. 20.