Posted 9/5/2013 03:45 pm
Updated 8 months ago
LITTLE ROCK - Disparities in teacher salaries, transportation funding and other areas show that Arkansas hasn't lived up to the promises of the reforms enacted to end a long-running school funding case, attorneys for a school district told the state Supreme Court Thursday.
The Deer/Mount Judea School District in northwestern Arkansas asked justices during a hearing to revive its lawsuit claiming that the state's system of funding public schools violates the state's constitution. A Pulaski County judge dismissed the district's case in 2011 and rejected a motion to reconsider it, ruling that the district's claims had previously been addressed in the 15-year-long Lake View school funding case.
The 360-student Deer/Mount Judea district argues that the state has failed to address inequities between schools across Arkansas on transportation funding and average teacher salaries, citing a $26,000 gap between the lowest and highest average pay for teachers in the state. It also argues that the state hasn't adequately funded isolated school districts.
Clay Fendley, an attorney for the district, asked justices to overturn that dismissal and either send the case back to the lower court or appoint special masters to review its complaint.
"The state has refused to acknowledge failure and has failed to make adjustments necessary to maintain a constitutional system," Fendley told justices.
The tiny Lake View School District sued the state in 1992, challenging the constitutionality of a system that allowed wide funding disparities between wealthy districts and poor ones. The case ended in 2007 after reforms had been enacted and justices ruled that Arkansas had funded its schools adequately.
The reforms that the district says the state hasn't lived up to include the requirement that Arkansas base its per-student funding level on a legislative panel's study of what it costs to provide an adequate education.
An attorney for the state argued that allowing the lawsuit to move forward would lead to "continual litigation" over the same issues addressed in the Lake View ruling and could prompt other schools to file claims as a way to negotiate more money from the state Legislature.
"Any time there's any sort of change to the funding system, there will be new litigation and we'll be constantly in litigation over the state's education funding system, which is so complex and has enough moving parts that any time a creative lawyer wants to, he can come up with a claim," Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson told the court.
One justice questioned how that stance would affect future complaints about school funding.
"Wouldn't that lead to a situation where nobody could ever challenge the funding system under your theory?" Justice Paul Danielson asked Richardson.
Richardson responded: "Our argument is they can't do that by going back into the Lake View period and trying to show, 'Well, all these facts and evidence that were at issue in the Lake View period show that the state is unconstitutional now.' The Lake View ruling in 2007 set the floor for what is a constitutional system."
The district also argued that the transportation funding system is inadequate because it doesn't define the maximum amount of time students may spend on a school bus. Former state Sen. Bill Lewellen, an attorney for the district, said some students are on the bus for at least 90 minutes in the morning.
"It is inhumane for a 4-year-old child who is barely potty-trained to have to get up at 5:30 in the morning and drive an hour and a half and not have the use of a bathroom," Lewellen said.
Richardson warned justices about the impact that setting a maximum transportation time would have on other parts of the school funding model.
"If the state has to fund a 45-minute ride for every student across the state, then the costs are out of control and we're not meeting the other constitutional mandate, which is an efficient education," Richardson said.
Justices did not indicate when they'd rule in the case.
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