LITTLE ROCK — The promise of the Lake View school funding case and the reforms enacted under that case have not been realized, an attorney for the Deer-Mount Judea School District argued Thursday before the state Supreme Court.
An attorney for the state attorney general’s office argued that the district is attempting to re-litigate issues that were resolved in the Lake View case and create a situation of "continual litigation."
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in the Deer-Mount Judea district’s appeal of a Pulaski County circuit judge’s dismissal of its lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ current school funding system. Judge Chris Piazza dismissed the case in April 2011 and denied a motion to reconsider in January 2012, saying the points raised in the lawsuit had been addressed in the Lake View case.
Clay Fendley, an attorney for the district, argued Thursday that under the current system, the district is unable to match other districts in teacher pay and transportation funding.
"It is so bad now that there is no overlap between Deer-Mount Judea’s salary schedule and the salary schedule of the highest-paying district, the Springdale School District," he said. "A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Springdale will make $1,300 more than the most experienced veteran teacher with a Ph.D. at the Deer-Mount Judea School District. That is inequity the state must address to maintain constitutionality."
Fendley also said the Deer-Mount Judea district, located in rural Newton County in northern Arkansas, receives only 19 percent of its transportation funding through the foundation funding matrix, whereas the Fort Smith School District has a surplus of more than $1 million in transportation funding.
"That is inequitable," he said, adding that Deer-Mount Judea students spend an excessive amount of time on the bus and that a rational system of transportation funding should include a maximum travel time for students, but the state has refused to set one.
Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson argued that the district had improperly merged two different lawsuits and that the Supreme Court previously addressed the district’s arguments in the Lake View case.
In that long-running case, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state was not adequately and equitably funding public schools. After the Legislature consolidated schools and enacted spending hikes and sweeping reforms in response to the ruling, the court ruled in 2007 that the state’s system of funding public schools was both adequate and equitable.
"What Deer-Mount Judea is arguing for is essentially continual litigation," Richardson said. "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."
Justice Paul Danielson asked Richardson why the claims of inequitable transportation funding and excessive travel time, for example, did not deserve a hearing in court.
Richardson said the funding system that the Legislature crafted and the court approved allows variances in transportation funding. He said the Legislature has not set a maximum travel time for a good reason.
"Say we adopt the 45-minute rule that Mr. Fendley proposes," Richardson said. "Does that mean that we then have to move the school in order to get it closer to a kid who happens to live a long way from the school? In a lot of rural Arkansas, it’s expected that people live in remote places and they’ll drive hours on end to get to Walmart, to get to a restaurant to eat dinner."
The justices did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.