By Erik Kolsrud
PHOENIX — The Arizona Senate Education Committee took steps Thursday to prevent school districts from taking lower offers from potential buyers if a higher offer from a charter school exists.
This is just the first step for House Bill 2460 in the Senate — the bill was originally introduced in the House by Rep. Vince Leach (R-Saddlebrooke). The Senate committee voted 5-2 in favor of a “Due Pass” recommendation for the bill.
This legislation amends standing law related to charter schools, which currently prohibits public school districts from ignoring offers from charter schools on these vacant or unused buildings. One potential way to get around this is by taking lower offers from somebody else, or taking the property off the market. Leach’s bill covers both scenarios.
“All we are saying is you can’t discriminate solely because it’s [a charter school],” Sen. Steve Smith (R-Chandler) said. Smith voted in favor of the bill.
The Arizona School Boards Association disagrees with this assessment. Charter schools are often the direct competitors with school districts, pulling students — and the state funding that goes with them — away from the cash-strapped public school system.
“There’s definitely a difference between fostering local choice and forcing schools to sell property to their direct competitor,” ASBA communications director Heidi Vega said. “Public schools should not be required to sell or lease a school to anyone. It should be their choice.”
This has been a big argument in Tucson. Tucson Unified School District has closed 20 schools since 2012, a number of which stand empty. Eight of them have been partially or fully leased, while an additional five have been sold.
“Schools in the neighborhood are a value to residents,” Paul Parisi, a longtime resident of Tucson, said. “Future land use is not [the school district’s] authority. They are stewards of the community.”
In of TUSD’s case, it is under their authority as the district owns the properties in question. The remaining schools are held for future growth or dedicated to TUSD programs like an infant and early learning center at Brichta Elementary School. Three of those leases are to other education organizations, one of which is a charter school.
The fight between TUSD and charter schools came to a head in 2017 over disagreements regarding the purchasing of Reynolds Elementary School by La Paloma Academy, a charter school. The district sold the school to a developer for $1.4 million instead of the school’s offer of $2.1 million, triggering complaints that the process was unfairly biased.
According to Vega, this bill came out of that argument, and the single dispute is not representative of the entire issue in Tucson or across Arizona.
“It’s legislation by anecdote,” Vega said. “It’s not a statewide issue.”
Statewide, charter schools have been on the rise with student enrollment posting an average growth of 6.4 percent in the last four years, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association. Public schools have seen an average drop in enrollment to the tune of -0.25 percent.
TUSD built many schools in the past with the idea that Baby Boomer-level growth would continue. When the growth didn’t materialize and the district fell on hard times, low-enrollment schools were closed. Charter schools leasing or buying these closed schools could pull students from surrounding neighborhoods and further damage TUSD enrollment numbers, critics say.
“It’s like forcing Coldstone to lease a store to Baskin Robbins,” Vega said.
The next step for the bill is the Senate Rules Committee, followed by a vote on the Senate floor. If both pass, it goes to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.