When school districts borrow money by issuing bonds, they put taxpayers on the line to repay the funds. This is why Arizona law requires voters to decide whether the specific projects are worth the extra tax burden. But the legislature passed a new law in 2010 that carves out privileges for certain school boards to override the will of the voters. What results is an unconstitutional system that violates a contract between voters and school districts, and replaces voter approval with the preferences of school board members.
In 2000, voters in the Cave Creek Unified School District approved $41.6 million in bonds to build new schools. After building two elementary schools, the district determined the remaining $13 million wasn’t enough to build a new high school and instead decided to use the money on unapproved projects. The district claims the new 2010 law allows the redirection of the bond money. But when the bonds were voted on, taxpayers also chose how any left over money would be spent. One of those ways was to pay down the bond debt, so taxpayers don’t end up paying as much in the long run. The district has disregarded the voter-approved plan for what to do with leftover money and now wants to spend the money on something else. This violates the contract the district made with voters during the bond election.
The Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation is challenging the school board’s actions on two grounds. The first challenge is based on the contracts clauses in the Arizona and U.S. constitutions, which hold that a government may not interfere with a legitimate contract. In this case, both the legislature and the school board have violated the contract between the voters and the school district. The second challenge is based on the special laws provision in the Arizona Constitution which prevents the government from passing laws that don’t apply to all citizens equally. Because the law passed by the legislature only applies to a limited number of school districts, it is unconstitutional.
The school district and the legislature simply can’t substitute their own preferences over a voter approved contract. And if they insist on doing so, taxpayers shouldn’t be on the line to repay loans for projects they didn’t authorize.
Christina Kohn is an attorney with the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.
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