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Terms of Art:
Courts Define "Political Subdivision"

Most professions are characterized by unique vocabularies, and law is no exception. Understanding many of the law's terms and phrases is essential to appreciating how it gives rise to issues that impact the higher education community. With this edition, then, In Brief begins a series of articles whose intent is to define some of these legal terms. This first installment attempts to explain the phrase "political subdivision."

It is widely known that an Arizona community college district has the legal designation as a "political subdivision." This is important because of the significance the law affords to such an entity.

Open meeting-law requirements, conflict-of-interest provisions, and a whole host of other legal mandates are triggered when the law attaches such a designation.

The meaning of the phrase "political subdivision," however, is not readily apparent by resort to the dictionary. "Political" describes things relating to affairs of government or politics. A "subdivision" is nothing more than an area composed of subdivided lots.

McClanahan v. Cochise College was an effort by the Arizona Court of Appeals to address the question of what makes a political subdivision. "The attributes which are generally regarded as distinctive of a political subdivision," the court observed, "are that it exists for the purpose of discharging some function of local government, that it has a prescribed area, and that it possesses authority for subordinate self-government by officers selected by it."

According to the court, political subdivisions are unique in that "they embrace a certain territory and its inhabitants, organized for the public advantage, and not in the interest of particular individuals or classes; that their chief design is the exercise of governmental functions, and that to the electors residing within each is, to some extent, committed the power of local government . . . for the peculiar benefit of the people there residing."

Community college districts in Arizona derive all their authority under law from statutes the legislature has enacted. What powers and duties are important, then, in concluding-as the court in McClanahan concluded-that a community college district is a political subdivision?

  • A community college district is typically limited to serving residents in the county in which the district is situated.
  • District boards have overall responsibility for the operation of community college districts. The voters in their respective counties elect those boards.
  • A community college district is empowered under statute to levy taxes upon property holders in its county in order to raise revenues.
  • In order to pay expenditures for capital outlay, a community college district board may seek the approval of voters to issue and sell bonds.

Education policy experts point to these distinguishing traits of a community college district and note that those traits afford a district a high degree of local control. Such local control, however, also creates what Arizona law deems a political subdivision.

Published in the Summer 2003 Edition of In Brief

Questions or comments?
Contact Lee Combs @ 480.731.8878

Maricopa Community Colleges
Office of General Counsel
2411 West 14th Street
Tempe, AZ 85281-6942
480.731.8877 / 480.731.8890 fax

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