Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

TOP STORY >> Legislative effort flunks

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writers

“In terms of the district’s current situation, the special masters just lit a bright candle in the darkness called fiscal distress,” Pulaski County Special School District lawyer Sam Jones.

Jones was referring to the findings of two special masters Monday that the Legislature had once again failed to adequately fund public schools in the wake of the Lake View decision handed down by the state Supreme Court in 2002 calling for equal opportunities for all students. The Pulaski school district intervened in that case and was active in the hearings before the two special masters, which concluded Sept. 9. (Editorial, p. 10A.)
The Supreme Court said Tuesday it would accept objections for 20 days from the parties to the special masters’ report. The court will take the matter under advisement either on a motion by the parties or on its own merits. (Related stories, p. 9A.)

Jones said special masters Bradley Jesson and David Newbern agreed with virtually all of the contentions of the school districts seeking hundreds of millions more in state aid.

The special masters also agreed to discuss the state’s “draconian” sanctions against districts in fiscal distress, like the one Jones represents.
The state Board of Education recently took control of the fiscally distressed Helena-West Helena School District, installing its choice of superintendents.

FISCAL DISTRESS

PCSSD is in its first year of fiscal distress and has submitted to the state fiscal distress recovery plan. Jones said more money from the state legislature would help.
The court, by a 4-3 vote, turned the case back over to the same special masters who initially heard the case in 2002.

In an 86-page record, Jesson and Newbern, former state sup-reme court justices, said the legislature had fallen short, failing to increase minimum foundation aid to account for inflation, that they short-changed educational adequacy and failed to make education a priority.

The two say the legislature failed to fund newly mandated programs, and suggested $300 million worth of revenues available to lawmakers to help improve education and buildings.
The two-week hearing included scores of witnesses, 82 exhibits and half-a-dozen depositions, according to Jones. The special masters released their findings Monday.

“I think they painted a clear roadmap for the Supreme Court to follow if they choose,” Jones said. “I’d be surprised if they rejected much. Usually the findings of special masters are taken to heart.”

HOLMAN NOT SURPRISED

Dr. Frank Holman, superintendent of Cabot School District, said Tuesday that he is not surprised by the special masters’ report to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“As I testified before the House Education Committee, I did not think what [the legislators] were doing was going to meet the requirements of the law,” Holman said.

This year’s “foundation money” that the state pays for each student is $5,400, is exactly the same last year.
Until the last week the legislature was in session, the plan was to increase that amount by $100.
Then the plan changed, and the money was divvied up by the legislators for special projects in their districts as grants for rural fire departments.

They might all be worthwhile projects, Holman said. But they are not required by the state constitution as educating the state’s children is.

Holman says he hopes the high court agrees with the masters and that the governor acts quickly to call the legislature back in session to give the money to the schools so they can pay for some of the currently unfunded mandates that came out of the last session like duty-free lunches and more music teachers.
“I hope the Supreme Court rules that our current system is not adequate and requires the legislature and governor to come back and fund K-12 education adequately as required by the Arkansas constitution. Arkansas children and teachers deserve that,” he said.

Like the special masters, Holman said the legislature got off to a good start in 2003 with plans that included funding as much as $900 million for improvements to school facilities. But the district was not among the 37 districts that sued the state after the legislative session ended in May.

Cabot’s concerns: $1.5 million in unfunded mandates, stagnant foundation funding and $100 million for facilities doled out over several years, were all addressed in the suit so Cabot just waited for it to play out, he said.

But does Cabot Schools agree with the special masters that the legislature backed off from their commitment to the state’s schools?

“You bet they did,” Holman said.

LEGISLATORS RESPOND

In contrast to Jones and Holman, local legislators say there is much not to like in the findings.
“There are a couple of things troubling me,” said state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jack-sonville, pointing out the masters suggested the state spend $107 million in current surplus revenues, plus the $49 million they had put in an educational trust and next year’s $180 million projected surplus.

“It appears the masters want to order the legislature to spend a specific amount of money,” Bond said.
Bond said that threatens the separation of powers, leaving the Supreme Court sitting as a “super legislature.”
“Some people think there may be a standoff between the governor and legislature versus the Supreme Court,” he said. “It’s too early to tell.

“They only need four people for a majority,” said Bond, of the court, while the same action taken by a legislatures would take 51 representative, 18 senators and a signature by the governor.
“That’s a problem,” he said.

“They weren’t impressed with the wealth index we came up with, Bond said. “The special masters saw it as a way to keep down the state’s contribution to building or fixing school facilities.”

LARGEST TAX INCREASE

Bond said the state had the largest tax increase in its history to fund education.
“I want public schools to be the schools of first choice, not last resort,” Bond said. “I’m for funding them at a high level. But before we pour money into the system, we have to evaluate if we’re making kids smarter. The masters don’t address that.”

Bond said Arkansas’ funding of pre-kindergarten classes is “kind of a national model for a lot of states.”
“I’m disappointed,” said state Representative Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, “but not surprised. I still believe that some of these issues are going to take a little more time than they realize.
“We put $107 million to $120 million into facilities as a starting point, looking at safety issues in these schools, and $35 million into teacher insurance.”

She said she believes mandates should be funded and that schools should code expenditures so expenses can be tracked.

CONSOLIDATION

“They seem to think we should have looked more at consolidation,” Prater said.
State Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, said the legislature had funded an additional $700 million for the schools for the biennium.

“Seems like the masters aren’t giving us any credit,” he said.
Glover said he opposes any further expenses that require raising taxes and warned against using one-time money to fund ongoing programs.

He also expressed concern about new mention of consolidation.
“That was not in the Lake View Case,” Glover said.
As for the unfunded mandates the legislators had approved, Glover pointed out that he was the chief sponsor of a law requiring a fiscal impact statement to be attached to all mandates, “so we’d know the cost,” he said.
Glover said legislators ignored that law.

He also said he had been concerned about not raising the minimum foundation aid from $5,400 for the first year, taking inflation into effect. The special masters had the same concern.
Of the Supreme Court, Glover said, “They are going to likely drop the hammer on us. Fortunately, by the second year of the biennium, we should have $300 million in surplus funds.
“I’m comfortable knowing we have the surplus on hand.”