October 31, 2015 / 3:29 AM / 2 years ago

Arizona governor signs $3.5 billion education plan to end lawsuit

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation on Friday to pump $3.5 billion more into education coffers over the next decade and settle a five-year-old legal dispute.

The Republican governor acted quickly in approving a three-bill package to provide new funds for kindergarten through 12th grade students in public and charter schools, pending a special election.

About 60 percent of the money would come from the state land trust fund, with the remainder from the general fund.

“These are real dollars that will have a real impact in the everyday lives of our kids and teachers,” Ducey said at a signing ceremony. “These are dollars our kids and teachers will see.”

Arizona saw a decrease to its per-pupil funding during the economic downturn nearly a decade ago. The plan would settle a lawsuit filed in 2010 by a coalition of school districts and organizations against the state government for cutting inflation adjustments to education during the recession.

The formal signing, considered to be a certainty, came roughly an hour after the Arizona Senate approved the measures following a three-day special session. The state House passed the bills on Thursday night.

Staffers for the governor helped craft the compromise deal with education officials who sued the state over not funding the schools for annual inflation increases as required by a voter-approved law.

Voters now have to approve the measures at a May 17 special election. If the package fails, officials said the lawsuit would continue.

“This ends the lawsuit, so finally we can stop paying lawyers and start paying teachers,” the governor said.

Arizona’s highest court had unanimously ruled for the plaintiffs and the court case was being appealed by the state.

Under the settlement, the state would raise the payout to schools by $173 per pupil to $3,600, amounting to 72 percent of what a judge had ruled should go to schools.

Additional funds annually would be paid to cover inflation, although these payments could be skipped during certain tough economic times.

“This is just the beginning of trying to correct the educational challenges of our schools caused by the lack of state financial support,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

Several Democrats had opposed the funding plan, and among other things were wary of using money from the state land trust fund and seeking a more immediate funding boost. Their efforts to amend the bills all were defeated.

Editing by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Kim Coghill

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