by Matthew Simon
Economics 101 would suggest that anyone selling something would want to obtain the highest value or offer possible. We do it when we sell our homes, our cars and even when we sell items at a garage sale. We want to the biggest return on our investment. Even reality television shows have picked up on the excitement of creating bidding wars to achieve the highest price on real estate.
Unfortunately, some Arizona school districts aren’t always interested in getting the highest value for taxpayers. For example, Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) accepted an offer $400,000 below the asking price for a vacant school building when there was an offer on the table at full asking price. What was the problem with this higher offer, which would have put an additional $400,000 into the public school district coffers? It came from a charter school.
Charter schools are public schools that are operated independent from Arizona school districts. The state contracts with charter schools to provide additional educational opportunities and choices for students. These schools are tuition-free and are exempt from many of the burdensome regulations put on school districts. Charter schools compete for students, and parents actively choose to send their student to this school. Unlike school districts, if a charter school is not meeting the academic expectations outlined in their charter contract, a charter school can be shut down.
That’s right, TUSD accepted an offer that was 20 percent less at taxpayers’ expense because a charter school wanted to provide additional opportunities for students in Tucson. TUSD put politics above the best interests of taxpayers and, most importantly, students.
Arizona law already requires school districts “to attempt obtain the highest possible value under current market conditions for the sale or lease of the vacant and unused building or the vacant and unused portion of a building.” But because of situations like TUSD, the Arizona legislature is considering HB 2460 sponsored by Rep. Vince Leach, which would make it abundantly clear that school districts have to obtain the highest offer on the sale or lease of a public building and that the school district cannot accept a lower bid than a charter school or a private school. The bill would also prohibit school districts from withdrawing a property for sale or lease solely because a charter school or a private school was the highest bidder.
HB 2460 is not an attack on school districts, but a way to ensure that taxpayers are getting top dollar for public school buildings and organizations are not prohibited from engaging in the process. The reality is that TUSD didn’t want the extra competition within their school district. According to the Auditor General, TUSD only utilizes 52 percent of its available space for high school students. This includes two high schools that are only at 27 percent and 20 percent of capacity.
Arizona parents have made it clear that they are willing to walk with their feet in order to find a school that best fits them. According to recent research, nearly half of K-8 students in Maricopa County are attending another school other than the school they were zoned for. It appears that parents in Tucson are making similar choices. HB 2460 moves Arizona in a direction where innovators are better able to access available space to increase choices for families while also making sound fiscal decisions on behalf of taxpayers.
Matthew Simon is Director of Education Policy at The Goldwater Institute.