A judgment released today by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper requires the State of Arizona to immediately provide an additional $300 million to public schools to adjust base-level per-pupil funding for inflationary increases the Arizona Legislature did not provide for the past five years as mandated by law.
The base level is one of the major factors in the state funding formula for public schools.
“The ruling basically stated that the Legislature must reset the base level to reflect inflation,” said Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for Arizona Association of School Business Officials. “Today the judge issued a ruling that the base level amounts should be reset to reflect what they would have been had the state applied the inflation adjustments properly.”
In order to disburse money to public schools, the Arizona Legislature would have to make an appropriation.
The judgement in the Prop. 301 case (Cave Creek Unified School District, et al. v. Ducey) upholds Cooper’s earlier ruling in the case, which was released July 11. In it, she determined that the base level must be reset to what it would have been had the state properly applied inflation adjustments between fiscal years 2009-10 and 2013-14.
Cooper overruled the state’s objections in this order granting a declaratory judgment, which means the state must adjust base-level per-pupil funding immediately or convince a higher court to halt the ruling.
“The light at the end of the tunnel just got closer,” said Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association.
Essigs said he thinks the ruling may impact districts’ budget limits for this year and the revenue control limit, but urged districts to take no action until the ruling is discussed with the Arizona Department of Education.
The State of Arizona has said it will likely file an appeal with a higher court.
This speeds up the process. A ruling by the Court of Appeals would likely occur during the 2015 session of the Arizona Legislature, making it more likely that the Legislature would take up the issue, Thomas said.
The plaintiff school districts, ASBA and its education organization litigation partners remain interested in engaging in settlement conversations with the state, Thomas said.
Today’s judgment comes after an evidentiary hearing on July 18, the state’s objection filed July 30 and the lead plaintiff Cave Creek Unified’s response filed on August 12.
In her July ruling, Cooper also agreed in principle with plaintiffs – a group of education organizations led by the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials – that public schools should have received close to $1 billion in additional funding, or back pay, to account for inflation over the past five years.
The state had argued that the court should hold off on a final judgment on this issue until there is resolution on the back pay issue.
An evidentiary hearing on the back pay issue will begin on Oct. 27, with judgment on the issue occurring toward the end of 2014.
If there is an appeal on the back pay issue that will be separate, Thomas said.
“I look forward to working with the new Governor and the Legislature to implement this decision,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal. “The recession hit schools especially hard and school budgets are still bare bone. I hope our school boards and superintendents will take a deliberate approach to invest the funding on items that will best benefit Arizona’s students.”
“Local school boards know best the needs of their schools and teachers,” Huppenthal said. “However, I encourage school boards, superintendents and school business officials to take a close look at increasing starting teacher salaries, ensuring that classrooms are well supplied and, where possible, restoring funding to Career and Technical Education programs.”