Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/sat/31129STUDENTSFIRST.html

Forum to look at school funding
November 29, 2003

By Jennifer Sterba

Southern Arizonans will get their chance to evaluate the state agency responsible for funding school construction in a public forum to be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Cienega High School in Vail.

The forum is one of a series the state is sponsoring to collect feedback from the community on whether or not the Students First law is working. The forum will cover such topics as building maintenance, growth measurements, energy efficiency and customer service.

"It's an open forum," said Kristen Landry, School Facilities Board spokeswoman.  "There's no agenda. The audience determines what we talk about."

Comments will be recorded and evaluated later for possible changes, Landry said.

Students First took effect in 1998 and stripped funding power from school district taxpayers, giving it instead to a state-nominated School Facilities Board. The board distributes taxpayer money to schools that meet state driven requirements based on square-footage and need.

The law was enacted to equalize funding disparities between property tax rich  school districts and districts serving impoverished neighborhoods. To date, the board has distributed about $1.3 billion to correct building deficiencies around the state. It's given $1.4 billion toward new school construction.

Five years later, local school administrators say they're mostly happy with the board. But there are a few things they'd like to tweak.

Sunnyside Unified School District has been trying for two years to qualify for money to build another junior high school on Tucson's South Side. With housing developments planned for the southwest corner of the district, the administration foresees a student population boom.

"As far as getting a new school approved, it's a lengthy process and a process I think needs to be examined a little bit more," said Gene Repola, assistant superintendent of operations for Sunnyside.

To qualify for new school construction money, a district has to prove its square footage falls below the standard for the type of school desired (i.e. elementary, middle or secondary). But Repola argues the board considers a school's entire square footage - including cafeteria, hallway corridors and canopied areas - instead of just examining classroom space.

"That would seem to be the better way to qualify for schools," he said.

Another concern is the state board doesn't distinguish between categories of students. Mainstream students are allotted the same amount of square footage as special education students, including those with severe emotional, physical or mental obstacles.

While the board has done a good job handing out money for building renewal, Repola said, he believes school districts are becoming more and more dependent on those funds as capital money dries up.

* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at