Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

TOP STORY >> Legislators frustrated by Lake View

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND ROB MORITZ
Leader staff writer and Arkansas News Bureau

A special session on education may well be necessary but doesn’t have to be hurried, Gov. Mike Huckabee said Tuesday.

After the state Supreme Court declared school funding unconstitutional a week ago, Huckabee initially said a special session might not be needed to address concerns raised in the decision.

Since then, Attorney General Mike Beebe and others have said funding remedies would require legislative action. Only the governor can call the legislature into an extraordinary session.

Huckabee said Tuesday that he would not call a special session until a plan is in place to address issues raised by court.
Local legislators agree that there is a lot of homework to be done first and no need to rush.

No Lonoke, White or Pulaski County legislators were surprised by the ruling taking them to task, they said, but they were disappointed.
Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, said last week he found a couple of positive things in the mix.

Glover has said all along that the legislature’s decision not to raise the state minimum foundation aid for the first year of the biennium was a bad idea, but he was pleased that the court acknowledged separation of powers, limited its intervention and did not concern itself with issues of further school consolidation.

“I was well pleased that while the court adopts most of the masters’ report, they don’t adopt it as a whole, particularly regarding the issue of district consolidation,” Glover said. He also said he felt confident that there was sufficient surplus revenue to cover any needed changes without resorting to any new taxes.

State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, expressed disappointment that the court interjected itself into the Lake View/school adequacy question at all.

“It’s my belief that the court’s overstepping their authority, but it gives us an opportunity to examine again what we’ve done,” Bond said. “We’ll go back into districts, talk to principals, see what’s working and what’s not.”

Bond said the legislators could evaluate whether or not they needed to provide more money, and if so, in which areas. Bond said the new adequacy study would also show whether the general assembly required unfunded mandates.

Bond also said he thought there could be savings already in place to help offset the cost of mandates — for instance, technology that cost the districts less than the state provided.

“I took issue with their statement that we didn’t make education our first priority,” said state Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood. “Nobody wants new taxes, everyone wants more accountability. No one wants to take up consolidation again. We did the best we could with what we had to work with.”

“I’m still concerned about the separation of powers between the branches,” said state Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville. “ I still want to make the districts as accountable as possible for their money. It’s come out in audit lately about one district paying for country club dues.

“We have $1 billion in school district reserves around the state. Why is that not going to the schools? I want to make sure that the money going there is going to the kids.”

“What we have to do first is begin to gather information on what’s needed for adequate funding,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy. “The House and Senate Education Committees can hold hearings to adequately fund the schools. We need to know how the money is being spent. We need to meet with superintendents on reserve funds and how they intend to spend.

“We need to look at the athletic spending, transportation spending, all the spending. We need to monitor construction and real-time cost,” Capps said. “There is a real possibility of the judicial branch usurping the legislative branch. Do they want the judiciary running the school districts and the state?”