May 22, 2019
By Matt Beienburg

More money to classrooms, more savings for taxpayers, and more opportunities for students. 

No, this isn’t one of those logically impossible M.C. Escher staircases that can only exist on a piece of paper. It’s the trifecta of possibilities under a new bill passed by the Arizona state legislature. Sponsored by Senator Vince Leach—with the help of Senator Sonny Borrelli—SB 1161 empowers schools to forge educational partnerships and more effectively steward available resources to the benefit of students and taxpayers alike.

Advanced with bipartisan support and passed overwhelmingly in both the state House (46-14) and Senate (17-9), the legislation seeks to help alleviate some of the most pressing challenges facing both district and charter schools—the costs and availability of school facilities—while identifying underutilized spaces that currently divert resources away from students.   

Senator Leach had shared credit with the many stakeholders involved in crafting the legislation: “This bill came to me as a result of input from people in the education committee and also a report from Goldwater” and the Arizona Chamber Foundation.  

That Goldwater-Chamber Foundation report, Empty Schools Full of Promise: Exploring the Benefits of District-Charter Co-location Partnerships in Arizona, had spotlighted the more than 1.4 million square feet of vacant and unused school building space across Arizona and highlighted opportunities for reform. Specifically, the report called for increased transparency around the millions of square feet of additional underused school space currently going unreported. It likewise called on lawmakers to empower and encourage school districts to better manage their inventories of (often costly) excess space by selling or leasing it to other district or charter schools actively in search of available buildings.

SB 1161 advances these goals through several provisions. For example, the bill clarifies and strengthens reporting requirements by instructing districts to report any school building with at least 4,500 square feet of unused space (the equivalent of approximately five classrooms), while directing the School Facilities Board to ensure the accuracy of the reported lists during its regular five-year inspections of school buildings.

The legislation likewise eliminates barriers that have prevented districts from reducing excess space. Specifically, SB 1161 allows districts to sell chronically vacant or underused facilities without requiring approval through an election.

Perhaps most importantly, SB 1161 grants explicit authority to school districts to establish partnerships with other districts, charter schools, or military bases to offer education services in available spaces. At the same time, it allows districts to sell used equipment to charter or private schools before selling or disposing of the equipment by other means, and helps protect charter and district schools from surprise rate increases from other school districts who lease facilities to them.

SB 1161 will not solve every challenge facing Arizona district and charter schools. But its bipartisan reforms provide new opportunities for school districts and charters to better manage and access facility resources, streamline their costs, and focus those savings on the students they serve. 

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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