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Judge To Decide If Lawmakers Owe Arizona Public Schools $2.9 Billion

The latest legal battle over school finance could turn into a constitutional crisis in Arizona. The state Supreme Court ruled last year the Legislature ignored a 2000 mandate from the voters to increase state aid to public schools each year to account for inflation. Right now, that amounts to about $80 million dollars a year. Now, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper is deciding whether the base should be reset to where it would have been had lawmakers complied, and whether schools should get the money they missed out on. That’s about $2.9 billion. Attorney Don Peters, representing the state’s schools, told the judge late last week the lack of funding has hurt students in districts across the state.

“We're not asking for some windfall where people are going to start throwing big parties at schools,” Peters said. “The needs are acute and the money would be put to good use if the court sees fit to award it.”

Attorney Bill Richards, who represents legislative leaders, told the judge she needs to consider the reality of the situation.

“There is no billion-dollar pool just sitting out there that has absolutely no state programs waiting for it and that someone could just glom on to and throw out into the school districts tomorrow,” Richards said.

Richards told Cooper her powers are limited by the Constitution. He says she can rule on whether lawmakers have done the right thing but cannot order them to distribute money and figure out where it will come from. Judge Cooper says the Supreme Court sent the case back to her to decide exactly what lawmakers need to do to comply with its order. There is no indication when the judge will rule.