With the start of a new legislative session comes yet another effort to phase out desegregation funding for school districts.
This time, the Tucson Unified School District’s desegregation dollars are off the chopping block, but only temporarily.
A new version of a bill, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, calls for phasing out funding once school districts achieve unitary status and their court orders are lifted — something TUSD intends to seek in 2017.
While TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez is pleased there is no immediate threat to the nearly $64 million the district receives each year to bring its schools into racial balance and improve outcomes for minority children, SB 1125 is a concern.
“Really and truly I hoped that more of the focus would be on repealing the career and technical education funding cuts and focusing on the success of Proposition 123, and less on trying to address issues that would take money away from school districts at a time when the conversation has been so prominent about putting money back in,” Sanchez said.
For Lesko, however, the bill is not about taking money away from schools, it’s about equalizing the playing field and protecting taxpayers.
“I think it’s unfair that one school district can get thousands of dollars more per student than a neighboring school district with the same demographics for a situation that may have occurred decades ago,” she said.
The bill as it stands now would give TUSD the opportunity to meet the financial obligations of its federal court order. However, Sanchez is concerned that will not be the case once the desegregation order is lifted, as the bill calls for annually reducing funding for desegregation expenses by at least 7 percent for 10 consecutive years after unitary status — showing segregation no longer exists — is achieved.
This is not something that Lesko included in her previous bill, but it does to an extent hold Sanchez to a promise he made to the Legislature last session — to reduce desegregation spending himself once TUSD was out from under the court order.
The problem Sanchez has with the language being incorporated into the bill is that upon entering unitary status, the district will continue to have obligations to meet.
“It does present a challenge to have a phase-down that is more timeline-based than based on a plan that the court has to approve,” Sanchez said, explaining that a court-ordered exit plan will be monitored by the plaintiffs in the case. “You don’t want to lose your ability to maintain that and find yourself back in the same spot that the district has in the past.”
Lesko, however, is not swayed, saying it’s unfair to penalize taxpayers for something the court no longer deems necessary.
“I met with (Sanchez) last week and he shared his concerns,” Lesko said. “Of course he wants to keep the money — once you’re able to get thousands of dollars more per student, you don’t want to give that up, but the problem is, property owners are the ones paying for it.”
Lesko added that businesses are even more adversely affected because their taxes are not capped as they are for residents.
The bill will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee in the coming weeks.