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School districts, education groups sue Arizona over funding shortfalls

PHOENIX - Lawmakers have violated the Arizona Constitution by failing to adequately fund school facilities and repairs, according to a lawsuit filed against the state on Monday by school districts and education groups.

The lawsuit claims that the Arizona Legislature has short-changed school districts by several billion dollars since 2009 despite court rulings mandating that the state pay for facility construction and maintenance. In a joint statement, the coalition of school districts, educational organizations and parents said the legislature has long been responsible for "turning its back on public school districts."

"State leaders have ignored this obligation far too long," the group said. "They have lost this fight once, and it is time to step up and adequately fund public schools according to the law."

The lawsuit is the latest step in a long-running legal battle between educators and the state over capital items. Arizona was sued in 1991 over capital funding for its schools, and the state Supreme Court ruled three years later that the state was required to provide funding for facilities in all school districts.  

A 1998 settlement agreement provided $1.3 billion to bring facilities up to state standards, plus $200 million a year for building maintenance and another $200 million a year for "soft capital items" such as textbooks, buses and technology.

Monday's lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, says that annual payouts have since been cut back. It does not specify an amount being sought by the plaintiffs.

State officials will be reviewing Monday's lawsuit in detail, "but our focus right now is on passing a budget that will increase education funding," Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, said in a brief statement to Reuters.

A May 2016 ballot measure approved by voters called for an additional $3.5 billion to be reallocated from the state's land trust fund and used for general education funding over the next decade. That money was not aimed at capital improvements.

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Kay Miller Temple/Cronkite News

A class at Tucson's Manzo Elementary School, 2014.