Delayed Impact

A development fee for schools is bottled up in a legislative committee.

The Amphitheater School District has seen more than its share of growth in the last decade, with a 16,000-member student body that has jumped more than 25 percent in the 1990s.

So it's no surprise that earlier this year, the district's governing board voted unanimously to support Senate Bill 1161, which would allow municipalities like Oro Valley to charge impact fees to help build schools. Under the proposed legislation, developers could donate land for schools in lieu of the fees.

Educational impact fees have been at the center of a court fight in Arizona since Apache Junction, a booming suburb southeast of Phoenix, began charging the fees several years ago. In the most recent round of legal sparring between the town and the Central Arizona Home Builders Association, a state appeals court ruled that the city had no legal authority to impose the fees.

So Democratic Sen. Pete Rios of Hayden introduced SB 1161 to give such authority to cities and towns. But with one week left for bills to clear committees in the state Senate, it appears Rios' bill won't get a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. The committee's chairman, Sen. Ken Bennett of Prescott, is refusing to hear the legislation.

"It's stuck in my committee," says Bennett. "I'm to blame for that."

Bennett says he's opposed to the bill because the new Students First program is supposed to fund school construction in the state. Lawmakers created the system after a lengthy court fight initiated by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Attorney Tim Hogan persuaded the state Supreme Court to rule that the old method of financing school construction, which depended on property taxes in each district, was so inequitable that it violated the state's constitution.

"We fixed that with Students First, which said the state would take responsibility of providing quantity and quality of schools facilities so that everyone would meet minimum standards," says Bennett. "I believe that impact fees are basically like a prepaid property tax. Districts that have growth and or expensive lots being developed are going to be able to generate some pretty significant monies, and districts that don't are not."

While he acknowledges that faster-growing districts have a greater need for new classrooms, Bennett falls back on the argument that "the state is responsible for building those schools for them, and nobody is telling me they can't get a school built."

But Nancy Young Wright, an outspoken member of the Amphi School Board, complains the School Facilities Board "gives us a full 25 to 30 percent less than what it would cost a build the kind of school we want."

Wright says the new high school the district is now building will cost an estimated $33 million, even without the costs related to a protracted legal fight over whether Amphi could build the school on the edge of critical habitat for the endangered pygmy owl. In contrast, the state's School Facilities Board is only spending roughly $15 million on new high schools.

"We don't want just a Wal-Mart type of big-box school," says Wright. "We'd like to build something with some quality. They don't want to pay for things like football fields and administration offices. One might argue that you don't need those things, but the public tends to want that. They don't want your principal in a Winnebago in the parking lot."

The Vail School District on Tucson's southeastern border has a similar struggle for state funding. The district, which saw its student body increase six-fold between 1990 and 2000, brought heavy pressure on the School Facilities Board to fund a badly needed high school last year, but officials complain that Students First provides only 75 percent of the amount needed to build schools to the district's current standards.

Bennett remains unmoved by such arguments. "I don't want to put us back in the situation where some districts have much, much better facilities," he says. "I don't want Tim Hogan coming back and saying impact fees are allowing some district to go well beyond the minimum without voter-approved class B bonds, which is the only other option that the other districts have."

Hogan himself says he has no plans to file suit over the imposition of impact fees, which he reluctantly supports. "Theoretically, we shouldn't need school impact fees," says Hogan. "Theoretically, students first should cover all of the necessary and appropriate school facilities cost. Unfortunately, I think that there are some gaps in Students First that don't cover all the necessary and appropriate costs, and as a result schools need some other revenue sources."

Despite complaints to the contrary, Bennett believes the School Districts Facility Board is spending enough money on the new schools. "We're worked very hard and I've personally been very supporting at the legislature in making sure that the monies allocated for the School Facilities Board got funded and that they have enough money to do what they need to do."

Toni Hellon, the freshman Republican senator who represents much of the Amphi district, sits on Bennent's Education Committee. Although she's on record as backing the bill--"If the bill comes out, I would support it," she says--she won't try to force a hearing on it by asking her colleagues to sign a discharge petition. "I don't think that's a good way to do it because you start the whole process with everybody mad at people who are in favor of it," says Hellon. "You start it backwards and I don't think that's a good way to start in this situation."

With a week left to get the bill a hearing, Wright is trying to whip up grassroots pressure, as are other school board members in Maricopa County. So far, it appears as though the efforts are having an impact. "We're starting to get a lot of calls," says Bennett.

Wright has a reputation for raising hell, as her former colleagues on the Amphi School Board can attest. Her ongoing crusade against stonewalling and corruption in the district led to a recall election against three of her foes on the board, as well as the resignation of the superintendent.

Even so, she knows she has a tough fight ahead of her--and passing the legislature is just the first step. "If we got it through the legislature," she laughs, "then we'd still have to get it through the Oro Valley Town Council."

Contact your lawmakers toll-free at 1-800-352-8404.