Posted 10/10/2013 12:46 pm
Updated 5 months ago
LITTLE ROCK - The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday revived part of a lawsuit challenging the way the state funds education, ruling that the case raised new issues that have emerged since a landmark school-funding legal fight was resolved six years ago.
Justices reversed part of a Pulaski County judge's decision dismissing a lawsuit by the Deer/Mount Judea School District that claims the state has not complied with laws that were enacted to end the long-running Lake View School funding case. The case now goes back to the lower court.
The court ruled that Deer/Mount Judea made new school funding claims that weren't addressed by the Lake View case that ended in 2007. The lawsuit included complaints that the state has not properly studied what constitutes an adequate education, cost of living adjustments and transportation funding.
The high court agreed with the state that several other issues had been addressed in previous school-funding cases.
"In summary, (Deer/Mount Judea) contends that several acts or omissions of the General Assembly violate the Arkansas Constitution," the court's opinion said. "We treat these allegations as true. Some of the acts or omissions complained of occurred after we had released the mandate in Lake View 2007. The circuit court abused its discretion in dismissing these claims."
The 360-student Deer/Mount Judea district argued 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.
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 were enacted and justices ruled that Arkansas had funded its schools adequately.
Clay Fendley, an attorney for Deer/Mount Judea, said the ruling set the stage for schools to challenge school funding problems that have arisen since 2007.
"I think it's a big win for school districts in the state," he said. "It affirmed their right to go to court to seek remedies for an unconstitutional education system."
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said it respected the court's decision.
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. The district claimed that the adequacy reports in 2008 and 2010 used to determine the per-student funding amount did not comply with state law.
The district also argued that cost-of-living adjustments that were made to the school funding levels were based on what funds were available and not what funds were necessary. The court ruled other complaints, such as a challenge to way small, remote districts like Deer/Mount Judea are funded, have already been addressed.
The state argued before the court last month 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.
Justices, however, indicated that they didn't want to continually monitor the state's school funding system and said the court decided when ending the Lake View case that it would "no longer look over the shoulder" of the Legislature.
"DMJ asks this court to maintain our jurisdiction over the school-funding cases to make sure that the General Assembly is continually adjusting the school-funding scheme to maintain its constitutionality," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the opinion. "This we will not do."
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