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Monday, December 17, 2012

Attorney general seeks rehearing in school money case

Posted By on Mon, Dec 17, 2012 at 11:41 AM

The attorney general's office has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to reconsider its 4-3 ruling that school districts that raise more than the state school foundation support from the uniformly required base 25-mill local property tax (known as the URT) may keep all the excess.

In short, the a.g. asks, does equal protection still apply in school funding in Arkansas?

Here's the background on the case, in which Fountain Lake and Eureka Springs won the right to hang onto excess revenue. Dissenters, led by Chief Justice Jim Hannah, said the decision obliterates the equality required by the earlier Lakeview decision. The majority said if the legislature wanted to fix it, it could.

The result, said the attorney general, means huge discrepancies. For the two districts in the suit, plus two others — South Side and Nemo Vista — it means districts getting to keep per pupil revenues of from almost $1,200 to almost $4,700 more than the $6,023 foundation formula payment per student in all districts. At the same time, poor districts that make very little on the base millage charge will have to get huge subisidies from the state to reach the $6,023 figure — more than $5,000 in Barton-Lexa, almost $6,000 in Poyen.

Wrote the a.g.:

The Court's opinion strongly suggests that equity no longer constitutes an independent limit on school funding, but that so long as adequacy is provided then equity will be satisfied as well. The Court appears to have held that no matter what disparities exist in overall per student funding among districts, equity is satisfied so long as foundation funding is provided to each student.

If that's so, the brief says, the court should say so explicitly and say that language to the contrary in Lakeview and other school funding decisions has been overruled. "The Court should also clearly state that difference in local wealth is now a rational basis for the State to provide different levels of funding in school districts."

If that's not the case, the brief argues, the court should say how much funding in excess of the base URT is too much. "As it stands, the Court suggests that the URT revenue in one district (i.e., Eureka Springs) of $1,267.50 more per student than 233 other school districts receive is equitable."

The questions are "too big for vague answers," the brief asserts.

The brief also asks if the URT is not a state tax producing state revenue, a key finding in the 4-3 majority, "then what is it?"

The Supreme Court is famously averse to providing advisory opinions and also almost never rehears decisions. Given the strength of the opposition in this case, the response to pleadings might be a little more detailed, at least, than some.

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