Court-ordered desegregation is over, but its taxes live on

2010-01-31T00:00:00Z 2013-09-10T16:57:56Z Court-ordered desegregation is over, but its taxes live on Tim Steller and Rhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The end of court-ordered desegregation doesn't mean Tucson taxpayers get to stop paying for it.

State law that allows the Tucson Unified School District to levy an extra tax for desegregation is still in effect, and the district has no plans to stop. District officials say they need the money to maintain the programs and progress made so far.

"There are many wonderful programs that have come from this money that our community has come to expect," Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said.

But some critics view the explanation in a different light: The district has grown too dependent on the money as part of its regular sustenance to give it up.

Worse, said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, the desegregation levy rewards failure by continuing to give the district extra money as long as the problem lasts, giving TUSD an advantage over other districts that aren't permitted extra taxes.

A 1983 change in state law allowed TUSD and other districts under federal desegregation orders to levy more than the usual maximum tax rate to pay for integration efforts. Over the decades, the proportion of the district's budget made up of desegregation money has grown from minuscule to indispensable.

In 1986-87, the $4 million in desegregation funding for TUSD was 1.75 percent of the district's total expenditures. In 2001-02, the proportion of district funding from desegregation peaked at 19 percent. This year, the percentage is 17 percent.

A 2008 Tax Research Association study found that, of the 19 Arizona districts under desegregation plans, TUSD had the highest primary property tax rate: $5.36 per $100 of assessed value. That's $804 annually for a house with a full-cash value of $150,000. At nearly $64 million, it also has the highest desegregation levy of all of the districts under integration orders, followed by Phoenix Union at $56 million.

Angered by the ballooning costs, the Legislature in the early 2000s put a cap on desegregation spending that allowed increases only for inflation and enrollment growth. Then last year, legislators eliminated all increases, capping spending at existing levels - for TUSD, $63.7 million.

Fagen said some desegregation money will stay at schools that already benefit from it, and some money will go to the district's new "Post Unitary Status Plan," which takes over where the desegregation order leaves off.

The plan encourages schools to create separate themes or identities that will draw in a diversity of students. It also focuses on marketing advanced educational programs to minority parents. It will get desegregation money for transportation and marketing, she said.

McCarthy, of the tax-research group, acknowledged it would be unrealistic to ask TUSD to give up so much money right away.

But, he said, TUSD board members ought to feel it is their duty to drive down the tax - "unless they just want to be honest and say, 'We're hooked on this money.' "

Contact reporter Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or at 807-8427.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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