Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TOP STORY >>School funding back in session

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Area legislators this week said they were disappointed or surprised—or both—that the state Supreme Court reopened for the second time the Lake View school-funding adequacy case. Justices on Thursday reappointed two special masters who had previously served in the case to conduct another review of the adequacy and fairness of the state’s public school system. In a 5-2 ruling, the court said it was not sure that reforms passed by legislators in April were enough to meet the court’s standards.

Several area legislators questioned whether the judicial branch was overstepping its bounds, serving as a super legislature and forcing them to spend more on schools. State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, said it takes 51 representatives and 18 state senators to make a law, while a simple majority of the seven justices on the state Supreme Court, voting in secret, can do the same thing.

“The legal system is not set up for them to be Big brother,” Bond said. “I think their goal is worthy, to make sure we continue to make progress, but when you’re talking about the justice system, I don’t think you can have the ends justify the means.”
“(The supreme Court has) already set precedent of reopening the closed case,” said state Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood. “I don’t think it’s going to affect what we do in session. We’ve met the mandate. (Lead lawyer David) Matthews is trying to dictate legislative policy, using the courts to do that.”

In fact, Gov.-elect Mike Beebe and legislative leaders said that their education priorities wouldn’t be affected by the state Supreme Court’s decision to keep a long-running school funding battle open until May. Beebe said the shortcomings cited by districts that pushed for the case to remain open would be addressed when the Legislature convenes in January. “We might disagree on how to get there, but education will remain the top priority,’’ Beebe told The Associated Press in an interview. “I think we’re going to do what we we’re going to do regardless of whether the court stayed in the case.”

“I’m disappointed that we continually look to courts for guidance (while) trying in good faith to improve education in the state,” said state Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville. “There always will be work to do to try to move Arkansas forward. One of the biggest issues will be school facilities, (ensuring that they are) safe and adequate.”

“I’m hoping that once the information is turned in as to the legislation and funding passed in the last session, it will satisfy them to close the case, said state Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle. “I’m not sure we ever going to satisfy them,” Glover said of the lawyers for the districts. “There’s got to be a stopping place somewhere.” “To me it seems like they are getting almost into the legislative arena with that kind of comments and order,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy.

“Everyone is getting too busy in this thing,” he said. “Step back and look at what we’ve done.” The ruling gave the state 30 days to show that it had complied with the court’s order to improve schools. Special masters Bradley Jesson and David Newbern were named once again to review the work and delayed closing the Lake View case until May.

Matthews, the lead attorney who asked the court to delay issuing its mandate, said the decision gives the state time to address the areas where schools are still lacking, including on facilities funding and money for rapidly growing districts.
“I think they had every intention of correcting those deficiencies,’’ said Matthews, who represents the Rogers school district. “It was never intended to be a criticism of the Legislature or of the governor. It was a simple acknowledgement that by the Legislature’s own documents, they had admitted there remained some things to do.”

Beebe said the top education issue that must be addressed in the 2007 session is funding to fix crumbling school buildings. Beebe said he anticipates the amount needed for school facilities over the biennium will be higher than the $250 million originally estimated. Sen. Shane Broadway, who has headed legislative efforts to upgrade school buildings, has said the number could be as high as $300 million to $400 million but said the figure won’t be known until late December.

Beebe and lawmakers will likely have to use money from the state’s surplus, which is predicted to grow to $843 million by the end of this fiscal year. “The good news with the facilities issue is that the bulk of that is capital and can be funded from the accumulated surplus as opposed to ongoing general revenue,” Beebe said. “Obviously there are going to be ongoing needs annually that will have to be addressed.”