LITTLE ROCK — A challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s system of funding public schools can proceed in part, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 6-1 ruling, the high court partially reversed Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s April 2011 ruling that dismissed a lawsuit by the Deer-Mount Judea School District alleging that the state was not funding the district at an adequate level.
The Supreme Court said Piazza was right to dismiss some of the district’s claims because they had been or could have been raised in previous school-funding cases, but the justices said he erred in dismissing claims concerning acts or omissions that allegedly occurred after resolution of the long-running Lake View school funding case in 2007. The court sent the case back to circuit court so the district can proceed with its claims regarding post-2007 issues.
In oral arguments last month before the Supreme Court, attorney Clay Fendley argued for the district that the promise of the resolution of Lake View has not been realized.
In that case, which began in 1992 with a lawsuit filed by the now-defunct Lake View School District, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state was not adequately and equitably funding public schools. Five years later, the court ruled that the state was meeting its constitutional obligations after the Legislature consolidated schools and enacted spending hikes and sweeping reforms.
Among other things, Deer-Mount Judea alleged in its lawsuit that legislative reports from 2008 and 2010 on the level of funding needed to maintain adequacy did not satisfy the law requiring the reports; that cost-of-living adjustments in 2009 and 2011 were based on the amount of money that was available, not on what was needed; that there is no rational basis for the state’s method of funding school transportation; and that the district’s facilities are inadequate because of an inequitable funding system.
Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson argued before the court last month that the district was raising issues that were already raised and decided in the Lake View case. He warned that a ruling in favor of Deer-Mount Judea would lead to the state being “constantly in litigation over the state’s education funding system.”
In its majority opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court said the adequacy reports and COLAs cited in the lawsuit came after Lake View ended, so claims about them could not have been raised in that case.
Regarding transportation, the court said that the 2008 and 2009 adequacy reports recommended that a budget line item be added for school districts whose transportation costs were not covered by the existing line item, but the Legislature rejected the recommendation — decisions that came after Lake View ended.
The court also said one of the factors in the resolution of Lake View was the passage of a 2007 law requiring the state to provide districts with adequate funding for facilities. It would not have been possible to bring a complaint about the effects of that law before the Lake View case ended in 2007, the court said.
“The circuit court abused its discretion in dismissing these claims,” though the dismissal of other claims was appropriate, Baker wrote in the majority opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Donald Corbin wrote that the district’s appeal was not filed in a timely manner and should be dismissed.
Fendley said Thursday the ruling was “a big victory for kids.”
“The state wanted no accountability, and the court said there’s going to be some accountability, so we’re excited about that,” he said.
Fendley said he expected to file an amended complaint to add new claims related to issues that have arisen since the case was dismissed in circuit court.
Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, who is named as a defendant in the suit, said Thursday the ruling was “procedural and technical” and did not address the merits of the school district’s claims.
“We’ll continue to watch it as it goes back to the lower court, and obviously the state will continue to hold its position,” he said.