Arizona charter schools’ suit seeks to prevent state from recovering over $5 million in funding it claims it overpaid to charter schools
According to The Republic, the Arizona Charter Schools Association (ACSA) and about 200 of its member schools have filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) seeking an injunction to prevent ADE from recouping more than $5 million in classroom-site funds that the department says it overpaid the schools. The suit claims ADE wants charter schools to return $5.89 million in Proposition 301 money after the state changed its interpretation of teacher-performance pay.
ACSA president Eileen Sigmund contends ADE’s actions are unconstitutional and would adversely affect schools that have already budgeted their Prop. 301 funds for this school year. “We’re filing an injunction … to ask a judge and neutral third party to say, ‘Hey, is this allowed? We were playing by all the rules you gave us, and all of a sudden you’ve changed the rules without telling us, and you’re clawing back the money,’ ” Sigmund said.
Although ADE declined to comment on the suit, ADE’s director of policy development and government affairs Stacey Morley said, “We constantly adjust school-district payments and charter-school payments based on current information and data. I don’t remember ever being sued because of it.” Morley added, “The fact is that it’s a finite pot of money that gets distributed to all schools.”
In 2000, Arizona voters approved Prop. 301, which was intended to provide additional funding for teachers based on increased student performance. The 0.6-cent-per-dollar sales tax is earmarked to pay teachers and provide instructional support in the classroom. The available money changes each year depending on sales-tax revenue.
In January 2013, ADE officials said they discovered that an error in calculating classroom-site funding had shortchanged hundreds of Arizona public and charter schools while causing others to be overpaid since 2006. In March 2013 , the department reimbursed about $38 million to the underfunded districts and set up payment plans to recoup about $6 million the state overpaid to charters and school districts.
ADE plans to begin collecting the money, starting this week, over a five-year period. “We’re trying to balance the fact that we have to take this money back because we feel it wasn’t distributed properly … (with the understanding) that it has an impact on schools, so we spread it out over five years,” Morley said. “I’m happy to have a court tell me if this isn’t correct. We really just want to try to be fair and reasonable, and we have a responsibility to all the schools in Arizona and the taxpayers to make sure that money gets allocated correctly,” Morley added.
Sigmund said attempts to negotiate with ADE officials since February 2013 have been fruitless. She said the charter association filed its lawsuit as a last resort.
Source: The Republic, 5/29/13, By Amy B Wang
[Editor’s Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Republic reporting that the Arizona Court of Appeals had held that the state legislature must fully pay for the base education budget, something that has not happened for three years. The three-judge panel effectively told the legislature it cannot pick and choose which parts of a voter-approved school-funding initiative it wants to fund.
Proposition 301, a ballot measure that voters approved in 2000, called for annual inflation adjustments to the base education funding formula, which covers school operating costs and other education spending, such as transportation and extra assistance to state charter schools. However, in the past three budget years, the legislature paid only for minor elements in the education plan, omitting funding increases to account for inflation. Lawmakers argued that the “either/or” language in the ballot measure gave them permission to pick and choose which elements to fund, especially in years when the state was trying to erase deep budget deficits.]