Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

TOP STORY >> Masters’ decision met with derision

Arkansas News Bureau

A review of how special masters in the Lake View school funding case addressed public school facilities was a springboard Monday for another round of criticism of the masters’ report, which has declared school funding inadequate.

Legislators panned the masters’ take on facilities just like the governor, and many legislators have criticized other sections of the 83-page masters’ report in the past.

Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, said legislative education reforms have been “excellent,” though some programs may need tweaking.
Earlier this year, lawmakers appropriated $120 million for facilities needs, to be distributed based on an index giving less state facilities aid to wealthy schools.

After a presentation about the masters’ facilities findings, Rep. Jodie Mahony, D-El Dorado, asked: “Are they crazy?”
“I don’t think you want me to answer that question,” responded Sarah Israel of the Bureau of Legislative Research.
Sen. David Bisbee, R-Rogers, said the report seems to indicate the special masters prefer all schools be operated by the state since the report called for more state funding of facilities needs.

Special masters Bradley Jesson of Fort Smith and David New-bern of Little Rock said the state did not allocate enough money for building improvements earlier this year and were relying too heavily on local contributions for building projects.

Bisbee said during Monday’s Academic Facilities Oversight Com-mittee meeting that he thought the special masters were pushing for a statewide property-tax rate and statewide management of school districts.

Bisbee said he be-lieved the special masters “didn’t seem to have a good grasp” of issues surrounding the legis-lature’s implementation of facility-funding laws this year.

The report echoed the pleadings of the school districts that renewed the suit, he added.
Other legislators joined in the criticism, prompting Committee Chairman Sen. Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, to compare the session to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“It’s like an AA meeting, it feels like you can get it off your chest here,” he said.
The masters faulted the state for having too lengthy of a planning process when it comes to addressing facilities and for failing to include facility needs in calculating the wealth index.

The report slammed state-mandated sanctions for having poor facilities, which could lead to consolidation if districts failed to keep buildings to appropriate standards.

Jesson and Newbern largely rebuked the General Assembly for failing to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately fund public education.

Specifically, the report concluded that legislators should have given a cost-of-living increase to a $5,400 per-student funding amount. Several school districts, led by Rogers, sought court action.

The state Supreme Court received the report on Oct. 3 and solicited briefs in re-sponse to the report that were due Monday.
If anything, a longtime consolidation foe said the latest round of school-finance litigation has warmed him to the idea of unified school districts.

Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, said school leaders who sued the state seeking more money may receive an unintended consequence from lawmakers.

A Republican colleague, Sen. Ruth Whitaker of Cedarville, said she will propose consolidating school districts into one district per county to improve efficiency.

“Sen. Whitaker’s bill is looking better to me,” Jeffress said.