School funding ruling: Start of Lake View revisited?


LITTLE ROCK — Six years after the long-running Lake View school funding lawsuit was resolved, the state Supreme Court has signaled that new challenges to the state’s system of funding public education are OK as long as they raise new issues.

A lawyer for the state has argued that if new challenges are permissible, the state could become embroiled in continual litigation over a system that accounts for about half of the state’s general-revenue spending each year.

The state’s highest court on Thursday partially overturned a Pulaski County circuit judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit by the Deer-Mount Judea School District in Newton County. The suit alleges that the state is not adequately funding the rural, isolated district, in violation of its constitutional duty to provide an adequate public education to its citizens.

The justices said claims that already were or could have been addressed in the Lake View case were barred, but claims of acts or omissions occurring after the Lake View case ended in 2007 may proceed. It sent the case back to circuit court, where a lawyer for the district said he plans to file an amended complaint with new allegations.

The constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education was at the heart of the Lake View case, which began in 1992 as a lawsuit filed against the state by the tiny, now-defunct Lake View School District in Phillips County. Other districts later joined the suit, which in its early days was concerned mainly with equity between districts but later shifted its focus to whether the state was adequately funding schools.

In 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding system was not adequate. The state Legislature responded with a series of spending hikes and sweeping reforms, including forced consolidation of tiny districts and a system in which lawmakers set a per-student funding amount for all districts each year. Regular legislative studies are conducted to help determine how much funding is needed to maintain adequacy.

In oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson urged the justices to uphold the dismissal of the Deer-Mount Judea district’s suit.

“What Deer-Mount Judea is arguing for is essentially continual litigation,” he said then. “There will be no end. A decision by one court will not have conclusive effect. Any time there is any sort of change to the funding system, there will be new litigation and we will be constantly in litigation over the state’s education funding system.”

Thursday’s ruling raised the question: Has the door been opened for another decades-long school funding battle?

“I think it would be premature to say that,” Gov. Mike Beebe said Friday, noting that the ruling did not address the merits of the district’s claims. “Now, we’ll have to see what they do. That’s a long time off. They’re back in trial court on the procedural issue, and that’s all it is, so let’s not borrow trouble until it’s time.”

State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it is “too early to tell” what the impact of Thursday’s ruling will be.

Key was asked if he believes the Legislature should be proactive and take steps to change the way isolated schools are funded in an effort to head off a possible ruling that the state is no longer achieving adequacy in education funding. Among other things, the Deer-Mount Judea district is alleging that the state’s transportation funding system is unfair to districts in remote areas.

Key said he did not see a need to change anything in the funding system based on the district’s claims, which could still fail in circuit court. But regardless of the lawsuit, he said, “We have a responsibility to continue to evaluate the programs, to evaluate our own system of studying adequacy.”

He said he has instructed the staff of the Senate Education Committee to review past adequacy reports — which the Deer-Mount Judea district alleges have been deficient in recent years — “to make sure that as we move into the future, if there is something there we need to address, we do that.”

Key added, “Really, that had no bearing on the cases. It’s part of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a former teacher and longtime advocate of public education, said she was not prepared to say that the Legislature should change anything based on the lawsuit, but she added, “If we are advised by the attorney general, for example, (to find) a way to resolve it without going to court, I would take that under very careful advisement.”

David Matthews, an attorney and former legislator who represented the Rogers and Bentonville districts in the Lake View case, said he does not see the Deer-Mount Judea case as the beginning of Lake View Part 2 because it specifically concerns isolated districts, whereas the issues raised in Lake View affected every district.

As to the question of what lawmakers should do, Matthews said they have the legal right to “wait and see what the court tells them.”

“But that’s an altogether different matter than the policy decision of saying, ‘OK, we hear the cries of the districts that are isolated and more remote, and we’re going to take another look at whether or not we’re doing what we should by them. They certainly have the right to do that and always have had that right,” he said.