Arizona schools may get some state help to cope with the high — and unexpected — cost of gasoline.
Gov. Janet Napolitano said her main concern over gasoline prices is the state’s school districts, which have to provide bus transportation for their students. "They didn’t calculate in $3-plus a gallon in their yearly budgets,’’ Napolitano said.
The governor sidestepped whether the state could help all Arizonans by temporarily suspending its own 18-cent-agallon tax. Instead, Napolitano said she wants a more focused response to "help certain areas mitigate the increasing price of gas.’’
Napolitano explained that means ensuring that schools can pay their fuel bills. To do that, East Valley school officials say they will need more funding than what is currently in their fuel budgets.
"In the last few weeks, it’s been significant," said George Zeigler, Mesa Unified School District’s director of financial services. "For the most part, for the last many years, the prices have fluctuated up and down, and the prices have not increased to this extent this quickly any time I can remember — and I’ve been here 16 years."
Zeigler said the district paid $1.61 a gallon a year ago for diesel fuel for the buses. When school started this year, diesel was $2.03 a gallon. Now, the district is paying $2.70 a gallon.
Zeigler said the district’s purchase order is for $1.6 million this year, and he expects to exceed that.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the Legislature didn’t allocate enough funding this fiscal year to keep up with rising gas prices during the summer, but "at that point, nobody knew this was going to happen."
"The more you have to spend on transportation, the less you are going to have to spend in the classroom because they are all competing out of the same budget," Essigs said.
Gubernatorial press aide Jeanine L’Ecuyer said later she does not know whether help from the state would be direct state aid or simply allowing local schools to collect more taxes from their residents. But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the latter option is unacceptable to him.
"It’s better (for the state) to provide the money itself,’’ Horne said. "Otherwise it falls unevenly on people in poor districts.’’
Horne said that poor districts — those with a low value on their taxable property — would have to impose a larger tax hike on their residents to raise the same amount of money a smaller levy could generate in a district with high property wealth. In fact, it was that disparity that caused the state Supreme Court a decade ago to void the requirement that each school district impose its own property taxes to build and maintain schools.
Neither Horne nor Napolitano had any idea how much state money it would take to alleviate the unexpected boost in gasoline prices for schools. But Horne said help would have to come soon — in the budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1 — to provide any relief.
"Rural districts would hurt a lot more,’’ he said. "I’ve had people tell me about districts where it’s mainly long dirt roads.’’
Napolitano also repeated her call for a state "antigouging’’ law that would make it illegal for merchants to boost the price of needed items by more than 10 percent during an emergency. Lawmakers rejected such a law the last two sessions.
But the governor acknowledged that in her own travels, "I haven’t seen gouging so much as high prices . . . that are unfortunately consistent with what’s going on around the United States.’’