The Color of Money

State seeks to slow runaway tax hikes for desegregating Tucson schools.

Arizona legislators, the governor and a federal judge are taking small steps to slow runaway tax increases that the Tucson Unified School District has implemented without voter approval to prop up its budgets with desegregation spending.

Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull has signed legislation, introduced by Rep. Steve Huffman, a Republican from District 12 on the northwest side, to cap TUSD's desegregation spending at the level established last July.

State action came after Joel T. Ireland, the senior member of the TUSD governing board, secured votes from Mary Belle McCorkle and Carolyn Kemmeries to boost desegregation spending by 20 percent to $62.5 million. It was fueled by a 9 percent property tax that Ireland, on the board since 1989, said was "fantasy."

State law that protects homeowners in counties and school districts where taxes are already high exempted Ireland and 107,000 homeowners within TUSD. But owners of business, rental and vacant properties felt the full force and the owner of Carpet Giant on East Speedway said the TUSD tax increase was enough to lead him to close.

"You talk about the fleecing of taxpayers. TUSD was the example legislators had of a district run amok," said Rep. Ed Poelstra, a Tucson Republican.

Under a settlement with minority families reached in U.S. District Court, TUSD began tapping unregulated taxes to fund efforts to desegregate its schools. Within 23 years, spending went from zero to $62.5 million, which is 20 percent of TUSD's current budget.

Superintendent Stan Y. Paz tapped the desegregation fund last year to plug a $10 million hole in TUSD's budget.

"This amounts to an override, without voter approval," said Michael Hunter, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association.

With the property tax cap in place because of Pima County's and TUSD's high taxes, the school district was able to tap into the state general fund--supported by income and sales taxes and other revenues--to get money for its desegregation efforts. People in Green Valley, Sun City and Flagstaff have paid for TUSD's inability to eliminate the vestiges of segregation.

They heard stories of how TUSD has supplanted its budget with desegregation spending, paying for everything from bureaucrats to locksmiths and light bills. The state's $1 billion budget shortfall also provided incentive to cap TUSD, which leads the 19 school districts in Arizona that are spending $193 million to comply with desegregation orders. Desegregation in 10 districts 10 years ago was $85 million.

Even 18,000-student Amphi, which shares territory with Huffman's legislative district, had a 25 percent increase in desegregation spending last year. That, Huffman said, is too much.

Still, Huffman was conciliatory toward the districts, saying the state shared the blame. "The situation is ripe for abuse. We have given a blank check to any district that was under a court order or one from the Office of Civil Rights," said Huffman, whose district does not include any portion of the 61,000-student TUSD.

Besides the spending freeze, the measure also establishes oversight by a joint legislative committee and requires TUSD and other schools under desegregation orders to provide data to the Arizona Department of Education.

Even toned down, Huffman's bill drew opposition from 14 members of the House of Representatives. Political ties prompted two dissents locally. Linda Lopez, a Democrat who also is on the Sunnyside Unified School District board, voted against the bill. Sunnyside shares TUSD's lawyers and lobbyist. Rep. Vic Soltero, a South Tucson Democrat, also joined the opposition. He is a retired TUSD employee and has a son Roman, who is on TUSD's fast-track for administration, having been promoted to vice principal after an abbreviated teaching career. Rep. Debora Norris, a Sells Democrat now running for Congress in the new northeastern Arizona district, also voted against capping the desegregation expenditures.

Five senators dissented, and Tucson Democrats Elaine Richardson and Ramon Valadez, a Soltero ally, were among five who failed to cast votes.

Earlier this month, Senior Judge Alfredo C. Marquez of U.S. District Court in Tucson denied a request by Laurence Marc Berlin to be appointed as counsel for Maria Mendoza, an original plaintiff in the desegregation suit against TUSD. Berlin is a member of the Independent Citizens Committee, which monitors TUSD desegregation efforts. An Ireland appointee, Berlin sought $250 an hour to represent Mendoza.

Marquez will rule later whether Mendoza, whose grandchildren attend TUSD, can remain a plaintiff. And Marquez hinted that TUSD, after 24 years, should seek to lift the desegregation order.

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