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Legislator is far off-base in saying schools acted illegally

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

Arizona legislators who have been roundly criticized for slashing education spending, are striking back.

Unfortunately, truth was a casualty as at least one lawmaker threw unsubstantiated and inaccurate allegations at school officials, accusing them of “illegally and secretly stockpiling millions of dollars.”

It makes for a great press release. But little of it is true.

As they dig in the sofa cushions looking for every unsecured dime to balance the state budget, lawmakers have turned their eyes on school funds. That’s understandable because education represents the single largest area of state spending – as it should be.

But in trying to grab money from schools, lawmakers showed that they really don’t understand the complexities of education finance.

In a recent press release, state Sen. Pamela Gorman, a Republican from the Phoenix suburb of Anthem, claimed school districts had more than $2.3 billion “cash” in the bank.

“A relatively small portion of this cash balance could be used” to help balance the budget for fiscal 2010, Gorman claimed.

Then she started lobbing grenades, accusing schools of “blatant deception and hypocrisy”

“Districts have been violating state law and illegally amassing larger and larger cash balances while crying out that we at the Legislature are decimating public education,” Gorman said. “It is shameless!”

If Gorman has any evidence of illegal activity, let’s see it. Every school district is audited every year and no allegation of illegal cash hoarding has ever been raised before Gorman’s broadside.

It is true that Arizona school districts have money in the bank. To not do so would be incredibly poor financial management. The Legislature often has challenged school districts to act like businesses – and that is what they are doing.

Money is held in reserve for many reasons. Hundreds of millions of dollars come from the federal government for the school lunch program. Some are gifts or school tax credit money waiting to be spent.

Other money is held in self- insurance accounts to pay health and liability claims. And if school districts collect property taxes in excess of what they are allowed to legally spend, the money is used to reduce property taxes in the following year.

The Legislature does have a difficult task facing it as it struggles to balance the state budget. But stealing money from school districts, then trying to distract the public with wildly inaccurate allegations of illegal activity is not going to make the job any easier.

Legislators should balance the budget based on honest and transparent discussion. Gorman’s statements were neither.

A Phoenix-area state senator wrongly claims schools are illegally hoarding billions of dollars.

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