Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

TOP STORY >> Attorneys want special session

By AARON SADLER
Arkansas News Bureau

With a report on public school financing now in the state Supreme Court’s hands, attorneys and state officials pondered Tuesday whether the legislature will be called into special session to readdress school funding.
The report issued Monday by special masters appointed by the Supreme Court found lawmakers did not do enough to adequately fund education this year. The masters’ report suggested a special legislative session to appropriate an estimated $180 million budget surplus for public schools.

Lawyers for school districts, including the Pulaski County Special School District, who sought court intervention in the Lake View case, urged Gov. Mike Huckabee on Tuesday to call a special session ahead of any action the Supreme Court may take regarding the masters’ report.

However, Huckabee said in a statement Tuesday he would not call a session in advance of the Supreme Court’s review.

“While I disagree with their decision to reopen this case and with the findings of the special masters, I will not try to play one-upmanship with the Supreme Court, especially by calling a special session which may not even be needed,” Huck-abee said.

House Speaker Bill Stovall, D-Quitman, said it was too early to anticipate how justices will respond to the report, especially since the high court was divided over whether to resurrect the school funding issue in the first place. Justices voted 4-3 this spring to reopen the ongoing school funding lawsuit closed after the same special masters, Bradley Jesson and David Newbern, complimented legislative action last year.
The Pulaski County Special School District and more than three dozen others asked for the court’s re-entry, claiming the legislature reneged on its obligation to education by failing to add a cost-of-living increase to a $5,400-per-student funding formula this year.

“Pending a majority opinion of the court itself, I’m not going to venture to say how that report would come out, whether it would be substantiated or validated at all,” Stovall said.

“It would be a little surprising if (justices) didn’t take that document seriously, but it’s hard to venture a guess what they’ll do.”

Attorneys in the case expect the Supreme Court will ask for written comments about the masters’ report within a few days, then will schedule oral arguments sometime after that. They expect a decision from the high court by the end of the year.

Only the governor can call a special session before the 2007 General Assembly. Stovall and Rep. LeRoy Dangeau, D-Wynne, said Huckabee should wait for the court’s findings before deciding to bring lawmakers to the Capitol.
Rogers Attorney David Matt-hews countered that the masters’ report was clear, outlining that legislators must do more to counter inflation, pay for newly mandated programs and improve school facilities. “If I were a member of the General Assembly I would be asking the governor to call us into special session to let us fix these problems that are so well defined,” Matthews said.

The 83-page report cited “largely uncontradicted evidence” that Ar-kansas has not made education its top priority. It criticized flaws in the school-funding formula and the lack of any study to decide if financing for the 2005-06 school year was adequate.

A spokesman for Attorney General Mike Beebe, whose office represented the state before the masters, said Beebe would wait to address the report if asked to do so by the Supreme Court.
Matthews defended Beebe and his deputies, Tim Gauger and Mark Hagemeier, for their work, saying the lawyers “can’t manufacture evidence” in support of the state.

“The age-old problem that lawyers deal with is that when a case goes bad, the client wants to blame the lawyer,” Matthews said. “It would be grossly unfair to blame Tim Gauger or Mark Hagemeier or Mike Beebe for the findings of the masters. I think they did the best with what they had.”

As to the legislature, much of the information provided to the masters was not available to lawmakers before they adjourned in April, Sto-vall said. Mainly, lawmakers did not know how much surplus money, if any, would be on hand for the upcoming fiscal years.

“Almost all the data presented by the districts were what I call ‘post General Assembly’ and we only meet every other year and it sounds like the (special masters) have an issue with that,” Stovall said.
“Even if there are some things in the report that are agreed upon by the General Assembly, we simply can’t do anything about it.”

The “doomsday provision” en-acted last year is the only funding mechanism available without legislative approval. It permits the state to take money from other agency budgets in order to finance education.
Any further action on the legislature’s part is the Supreme Court’s call, said Sen. Shane Broadway, D-Bryant.
“They have control of the situation here,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what the court might do. Is the court going to come back and say the funding formula itself is unconstitutional? Is the amount of funding? That remains to be seen.”

The day after the masters’ report was released, lawyers for participating school districts were jubilant.
“I can’t find a single substantive point that we raised that we did not prevail upon,” said Sam Jones, attorney for the Pulaski County Special School District.
One attorney, Brad Beavers of Forrest City, tempered his excitement by encouraging leaders from schoolhouse to statehouse to unite to improve education.

Beavers, who represented Lake View’s successor, Barton-Lexa, said the report lays out a blueprint for repairing a system that bears a “stain of unconstitutionality,” according to the report.
Without exception, Beavers and others praised the masters for the report, based on hundreds of documents and depositions and nine days of witness testimony.

“I think it will be of great assistance to the court and of great assistance to school districts and the legislature working together to get past this us vs. them mentality,” Beavers said.