New law set to address underutilized space

A new state law is set to address underutilized school facilities and student waitlists while making better use of taxpayer dollars.

According to a joint report from the Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Goldwater Institute, the state has more than 1.4 million square feet of underutilized and vacant school facilities.

“There are millions of square feet of vacant school facility space in Arizona districts and simultaneously we have a lot of high-demand schools with waitlists,” said Dr. Matt Ladner, Arizona Chamber Foundation senior research strategist.

SB 1161 allows- but does not require- school districts to rent out the underutilized space. And, the report suggests co-location, which involves making unused district school space available to charter schools.

“This is an opportunity for school operators to engage in mutually beneficial arrangements to take a financial burden off of school districts and generate more revenue for themselves and simultaneously allow high-demand operators the space they need to operate, giving more families the opportunity to get off the waitlist,” Dr. Ladner said.

More students will have access to their education of choice as waitlists decrease.

“Hopefully this is the first step in charters and district schools working in a relationship that’s not adversarial or not necessarily in competition. And so, that’s where I’d like to see this go- where our space can be used to teach our kids, which is really the ultimate goal of what we’re charged with, and that’s educating children,” State Senator Vince Leach said.

Rather than draining taxpayer money on the underutilized facilities, school districts in other states that share their campuses with charters have increased their spending on instruction by 8.9 percent, according to the report.

“You’ve got building space that’s not generating any revenue and is still generating expenses,” Dr. Ladner said. “So, if you turn that to space that is now generating revenue from the academic research it’s pretty clear one of the first things you do with it is to pay your teachers better. It really can be mutually beneficial.”

The report, Empty Schools Full of Promise: Exploring the Benefits of District-Charter Co-location Partnerships in Arizona, also pointed out that in addition to the 1.4 million square feet of underutilized school space, there is even more that is unreported.

S.B. 1161 will require better reporting of the partially used buildings owned by the state.

“If their taxpayers know that there is a building or half a building or quarter of a building that is not being utilized and it continues to show up on their report, I would think that the people that are investing in that school- the local people- would want to find out what they’re going to be doing with it,” Sen. Leach said.  

Sierra Ciaramella

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