In a decision that has financial implications for schools across Arkansas, a Pulaski County judge has ruled in favor of the state and against a small, isolated district in the Ozark Mountains.
The Deer/Mount Judea School District filed a lawsuit claiming that the state failed to comply with its constitutional duty to provide adequate financing for all Arkansas children.
The district has high transportation costs because of its geographic size and its relatively sparse population. School buses travel long distances to pick up students, whose daily bus ride is more than the statewide average of 49 minutes. The district sought greater funding for transportation and for what is known as "isolated funding."
Also, the average teacher salaries in the Deer/Mount Judea District are well below those in more prosperous districts.
The district is trying to avoid a forced consolidation with a neighboring district that would result from its enrollment falling below 350 students.
On the defendants' side of the courtroom, there was concern that a legal victory by Deer/Mount Judea would open the door for more school finance litigation against the state. That concern was heightened by the fact that a previous school finance case had forced the legislature to increase state aid to public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Legislators, education administration and school attorneys are keenly aware of the long-term financial impact of the Lake View case. Lake View was a small, isolated school district in eastern Arkansas that won a lawsuit in which it challenged the school funding formula as inequitable.
The Lake View case resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that school funds must be distributed more equally among prosperous and poor areas of Arkansas. Also, the state had to dramatically increase the amounts of state aid to all schools.
In response to the Supreme Court decision in the Lake View case, the legislature approved Act 57 of the special session of 2003 to require that all schools in Arkansas be assessed to make sure they were receiving adequate funding from the state.
One of the legal arguments used by Deer/Mount Judea was that the state had failed to comply with Act 57.
But the Pulaski County judge concluded in his ruling that "the General Assembly is well aware of its duty to our children. They must follow their promise to give school funding priority and to follow Act 57."
The judge also wrote that evidence shows that the legislature's staff, the Bureau of Legislative Research, has done "substantial work" to keep the legislature "toward a path that will keep our constitutional promise to our children."
He did mention that the state had made "some missteps along the way," but that the case filed by Deer/Mount Judea did not meet the constitutional standards that would require an intervention by the judiciary. That is because the school district did not prove that the legislature failed in its duty under the constitution to provide a substantially equal education to all children in Arkansas, the judge ruled.
He wrote that the lawsuit was "a shot across the bow," and with that in mind attorneys, educators and the legislative staff will study the ruling closely and thoroughly consider its ramifications.