School districts could be forced to sell off vacant schools

2014-02-21T00:00:00Z School districts could be forced to sell off vacant schoolsBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
February 21, 2014 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to force school districts to sell off unused campuses.

SB 1100 requires that if a campus — considered school buildings and surrounding grounds — remains vacant for two years it must be offered for sale or lease to a charter or private school. If there are multiple bids, the school goes to the highest one. If there is no interest among charter or private schools, the building goes to anyone else who wants to buy it.

The move approved by the Senate Education Committee is being pushed by the Goldwater Institute.

Institute lobbyist Jonathan Butcher cited the Tucson Unified School District, which has found itself with a declining enrollment and excess buildings.

Since 2010, TUSD has closed about 20 schools. Several of those, however, have already been sold, leased to charter schools or converted to other uses.

Butcher said the district is not only sitting on property that may have value, it is spending close to $1 million a year in maintenance.

At the same time, he said, some charter or private schools are looking for space to locate or expand.

“This is a responsible move for taxpayers and a good use of these facilities,” Butcher said.

But Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, called it a bad deal for taxpayers.

She said current law already allows school districts to sell off buildings, but only after approval by voters. Palmer said this not only eliminates the need for voter approval but also leaves questions unanswered.

For example, she said it may be the district is still paying off bonds that were used to build the schools. Palmer questioned whether that means the buyer has to assume any existing debt.

Palmer also said the legislation would force districts to dispose of buildings at a time when real estate values are depressed rather than wait until the market improves.

That did not impress Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City.

“Buildings are worth different things at different times,” she said. “Why can’t we just let that work, let the schools get back what they can for an asset that costs a lot to protect and costs a lot to maintain even though it’s empty?” Ward said it makes sense to put the property in the hands of someone who will use it “and increase the market value of everything around there.”

Chuck Essigs, representing the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the legislation also fails to consider some schools are built on land donated by developers with the specific provision the site be used for a public school.

And Mark Joraanstad, superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified School District, warned that the legislation actually might have perverse results. He said if school districts have to sell off vacant buildings they may instead decide to keep them at least partially occupied.

Not all the Republicans on the committee were convinced the measure is a good idea. Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, openly worried about putting the state in the role of trumping the property rights of school districts and their locally elected boards.

The measure now needs approval of the full Senate.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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