Public schools will be inspected regularly, committee will update campuses for safety | #schoolsaftey

Public schools across Arizona will be inspected regularly to make sure they meet minimum standards to educate students under a new executive order issued by Gov. Katie Hobbs.

And in a separate order, the governor formed a committee to update those to 2023 levels to ensure the schools have what it takes to help protect students during a campus shooting.

Those are things the state already had been required to do more than two decades ago after losing a series of lawsuits.

Until now, however, compliance has been spotty at best. And that meant that projects ranging from roof repairs to upgrading security with fences and doors that lock from the inside got done only in school districts that had the resources.

Hobbs said she found that unacceptable.

Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks with attendees at a Statehood Day ceremony in the Old Senate Chambers at the Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix on Feb. 14, 2023. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

“A child’s ability to attend a safe and secure school should not depend on their zip code,” she said in a prepared statement.

But an attorney representing school districts and education advocates said these two orders, alone, won’t end the lawsuit they filed against the state in 2017 for failing to comply with a series of Arizona Supreme Court rulings saying it is up to the state to provide a “general and uniform” school system.

What that will take, said Danny Adelman of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, is getting the Republican-controlled Legislature to actually allocate what he said are hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to fund both existing standards and the new ones that will be crafted by the Hobbs-ordered committee to bring them up to what is acceptable in 2023.

And getting that funding is likely to take a court order as lawmakers have, for years, fought all efforts to have a court tell them what their constitutional obligations are.

Just last year, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin rejected claims that he has no right to rule on the legality of the formula they decide to use to finance the funding of new schools and repairs for existing ones. Martin said it clearly is within the purview of the courts to determine if the state is complying with the Arizona Constitution.

The case is now set for trial next year.

Hanging in the balance is what is the legally required minimum to keep students in Arizona not only safe but in conditions suitable for learning.

Some of what’s at issue is basic, like ensuring schools have the money to fix minor problems like leaky roofs before they become expensive major repairs. But Adelman said some standards that were considered acceptable 20 years ago are now outdated.

Exhibit No. 1 are the safety and security guidelines.

“After Sandy Hook, the state studied reasonable things that schools should implement to keep their kids safe,” he said, referring to the 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children and six adults dead before the assailant took his own life.

“It’s things like single point of entry, decent fencing, cameras in some instances, a door that prevents people from outside the campus getting directly to children without having to get buzzed through,” Adelman said.

Only thing is, Adelman said, “they didn’t put any of these in the guidelines.” And that, in turn, meant that the state never funded them.

He said districts that have the financial capacity to approve bonds and tax local residents did implement some of these things. But others lack the resources.

“We’ve got pictures of them like having to loop a chain around a door,” Adelman said. “They didn’t even implement things like you could lock the door from the inside so a teacher doesn’t have to open her door in an active shooter situation to lock it.”

The issue of the state’s role dates back to 1994.

Under the system in place at that time, school districts raised and borrowed money for all new construction and repairs through local property taxes.

That year the high court said it created illegal disparities between rich districts and poor ones.

“Some districts have schoolhouses that are unsafe, unhealthy and in violation of building, fire and safety codes,” wrote Justice Frederick Martone for the high court. “There are schools without libraries, science laboratories, computer rooms, art programs, gymnasiums and auditoriums.”

At the same time, Martone said, “there are schools with indoor swimming pools, a domed stadium, science laboratories, television studios, well-stocked libraries, satellite dishes and expensive computer systems.”

The justices declared the funding system illegal and told lawmakers to come up with a cure.

In 1996, the legislature agreed to put $100 million into a special fund that could be tapped by poor districts for construction needs. Lawmakers also agreed to provide another $30 million a year for nine more years.

The Supreme Court found that plan flawed, too, saying it still did not meet the constitutional requirement for a “general and uniform” school system.

A 1997 alteration provided more cash. But here, too, the justices said that was not enough, saying that the state still wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligations.

Lawmakers eventually created the School Facilities Board which was supposed to pick up every district’s construction and repair needs.

Only thing is, legislators never came up with a new source of revenue to fund the potential $300 million annual price tag, instead absorbing the cost into the general fund.

That, however, worked only when the economy was good and revenues were increasing. When the Great Recession hit and state tax collections tanked, one of the casualties was money for the board.

The result has been that local districts that need schools or major repairs but can’t wait for a state grant once again have to turn to their local voters for bond approval. And that brings the funding system back to what the Supreme Court previously found illegal.

That led to the 2017 lawsuit. And even with that pending, Adelman said, lawmakers this year provided only $200 million of the $350 million in needs identified by the School Facilities Board.

He said while safety and security are crucial issues, they’re not all that schools need.

“In modern classrooms it’s just different than when everybody had a little desk and the textbooks were all in the desk,” Adelman said. That means different space requirements.

And not all of it is related to the physical layout.

The last time a committee met to look at what’s needed, he said, one of the findings was there should be a computer for each student.

“The problem is, they didn’t provide any funding along with that,” he said. And Adelman said while some schools were able to use federal Covid relief dollars, “none of that is permanent.”

Then there’s the grander issue of the buildings themselves.

The current system essentially requires schools to apply for grants to fix major problems. Aside from the fact that there hasn’t been enough to fulfill all those requests, Adelman said it is a short-sighted approach.

He said what’s needed — and what lawmakers originally promised more than two decades ago — are regular payments to districts to use for basic maintenance on things like roofs and air-conditioning systems.

“If you let school districts have some money they could use to keep their schools in good shape … then you can address things before it’s an emergency,” Adelman said. Instead, there isn’t funding for regular maintenance, meaning that what started out as small problems become big ones.

“Because of the system that exists right now, we are spending at the worst possible time at the highest possible cost,” he said.

Consider, he said, repainting schools on a regular basis to keep them watertight.

“Right now, in order to get the state to fund money to do it, they have to show it is actively infiltrating water,” Adelman said. “It’s more expensive, it causes more damage, it’s just a silly thing to do.”



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