PHOENIX — A House panel refused late Wednesday to require a “forensic audit” of the $64 million a year the Tucson Unified School District is spending on desegregation expenses.
That would be in addition to three already-scheduled audits, including one by the state auditor general.
After more than an hour of testimony, Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he would not call for a vote on the proposal by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley.
Instead, Olson said those who testified for and against SB 1120 provided “valuable information” about desegregation programs that will help lawmakers decide what action, if any, is appropriate.
But Olson’s decision essentially means the legislation is dead.
Finchem said Thursday that committee members really didn’t hear the full story because the committee meeting, which started at 9 a.m., had a long recess. As a result, the audit measure was not considered until near 10 p.m. and wasn’t decided until almost midnight Wednesday.
As a result, Finchem said, some who came to testify in support of the legislation left.
Finchem said he hopes to resurrect the measure. But that could prove difficult as there are no more committees set to meet this session.
TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who argued against the special audit, clearly was pleased by the outcome.
But Sanchez said the decision not to force another audit does not mean he is free to change how the district spends its money. He said multiple layers of oversight remain.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, was blunt in his criticism of Finchem’s legislation.
Farley, who has a child in the district, said Finchem represents no part of the Tucson Unified School District. And he said Finchem never took the time to discuss the issue first with Sanchez, meet with district officials or review audits already done.
SB 1120 was crafted by Finchem to require that if the district did not comply, the state would cut off its ability to levy a special tax that raises $64 million a year for the programs, which would have put the district at odds with a federal court monitoring its efforts.
The first-term lawmaker told the committee there is evidence the district has been misspending the money it is supposed to be using to comply with federal requirements to end a decades-old discrimination complaint.
As proof he cited the fact that, when told told to find a larger meeting space to accommodate more people, the district opted to remodel a school five miles away at a cost of $480,000, which came from desegregation funds.
Finchem also quoted from a statement by Gloria Copeland, a member of the TUSD board in the 1990s, questioning the expenditure of $3 million in desegregation dollars for a practice gymnasium.
Sanchez detailed for committee members all the oversight of how desegregation funds are used that already exists, including a court-appointed special master, two sets of plaintiffs who sued the district and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“And a federal judge approves a final budget,” Sanchez said.
The superintendent did not dispute the cost of the new board room. But he told lawmakers there’s more to the story than what Finchem said.
Sanchez explained the district was ordered to build a larger hearing room by the federal Office of Civil Rights following complaints by people interested in the Mexican American studies program who said they were squeezed out of the aging board hearing room, which also did not provide translation services.
He said federal officials threatened to build a larger room and bill the district if TUSD didn’t act on its own, and the federal judge overseeing the desegregation case who gave the district permission to use the funds.
Asked after the meeting about Finchem’s claim of $3 million for a practice gym, Sanchez said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Wednesday’s debate went beyond whether an audit is appropriate to exactly how it would be funded.
Finchem’s legislation required the money to come from desegregation funds, prompting House Minority Leader Eric Meyer to question whether that’s even legal, given the district is limited on how it can use the extra funds.
Finchem responded he doesn’t know the law, but considered the kind of intensive review he is pushing for is appropriate, as the district has spent $1.5 billion since the desegregation efforts began.
But Ross Ehrick of the state Auditor General’s Office, which would do the audit, also questioned the legality of diverting those dollars.
The legislation was worded to affect TUSD and Phoenix Union High School Districts — the only districts in the state that spend at least $15 million a year on desegregation funds.
But Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said he saw nothing inappropriate in the review, not just to ensure money is spent legally and appropriately, but the this kind of audit actually might turn up good practices that the more than one dozen other school districts in the state with similar desegregation orders could mirror.
Meyer, however, questioned whether what Finchem wants would be a waste of money, whoever pays for it, citing Sanchez’s testimony that the district already is set to have its standard audit, a regular desegregation audit and a performance audit already scheduled by the state Auditor General’s Office.
Aside from questions of duplication of existing reviews, Sanchez also questioned how quickly a separate audit could be done.
Sanchez pointed out the legislation would prevent any desegregation funds from being collected and spent for the 2016-2017 school year until not only the audit is complete but until it is reviewed by a legislative panel — a process that could force the district to lay off staff, cut class size, and put it in violation of federal court orders.