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Masters fault legislature on schools 

Special Masters Brad Jesson and David Newbern issued Monday, Oct. 3, an 86-page report in the Lake View school case compliance hearing. Read it here. The masters didn't issue a letter grade, but it sounds like an F, given all the deficiences they cited in the legislature's work. In every major respect, the masters said the legislature either didn't advance the cause of education or even left schools worse off with less monetary support. They scored the legislature for calling for still more study rather than implementin experts' earlier findings on such topics as adequate education and sufficient buildings. Among the criticism: Other state employees got pay raises, teachers didn't. Legislators got pork projects; schools got shorted. No effort was made by the legislature to further define and deliver an adequate education. No allowance was made for inflationary cost pressures. Unfunded mandates were imposed on schools that couldn't pay for them. No progress was made toward consolidation efficiencies. Money was left unspent when schools were in need. they said the the are still "stained" by unconstitionality. The report goes to the Supreme Court, which now faces a very difficult decision. Does it hold the legislature in contempt and order specific responses? Suggest the legislature meet again to consider the deficiencies cited? Reject the report? Or what? Here are some excerpts: "From the largely uncontradicted evidence presented by the movants, we must conclude that the state has not lived up to the promise made by the 84th General Assembly Regular and Extraordinary Sessions of 2003 to make education the state’s first priority. Without exception, the school superintendents who testified before us were of the opinion that regression in state-aid funding, costly unfunded new education mandates, and the General Assembly’s failure to take inflation sufficiently into account had adversely affected their efforts to provide and "adequate" education to their students." And also: "Rather than seeking to address the needs of the schools and the effort to achieve equal opportunities for all students across the state to obtain an adequate education, as could have been expected in view of the legislative priority expressed by the 84th General Assembly, the discussions were about how to spend available funds. " And also: "It is apparent that an atmosphere of satisfaction prevailed among state officials. They seemed satisfied that the supreme court had approved what they had done in 2003 and that they could simply rest upon the laurel bestowed by thecourt when it released its mandate after our initial report." "That same sense of satisfaction seems to be present with respect to the issue of school-district consolidation. " And also: "The funds appropriated for facilities repair, renovation, and construction during this biennium ($120,000,000) do not come close to addressing the state’s public-school facilities needs. This is true even recognizing the requirement that local districts must afford part or all of the expense. The state contends that before more money can be appropriated, it must first have a “master plan” which will not be operational until at least the 2007 or 2009 session. The state has already spent too much time “getting ready to get ready” as far as facilities are concerned." And speaking of money: "We note in closing our conclusion that there is at least $107,000,000 of general revenue funds from the fiscal year 2004-2005 that have not been allocated by the 85th General Assembly that could be spent to remedy some of the problems discussed here if they were appropriated and allocated in a special session. In addition, Mr. Weiss alluded to an estimated surplus of $49,000,000 in the Educational Adequacy Fund. He reported a current conservative forecast of a surplus of $180,000,000 in the present biennium. If those predictions hold true, and if the General Assembly lives up to its stated obligation to fund education first, the needs of Arkansas’s children may well be served." Finally ... "We recognize how difficult it may be to avoid the tendency to slip back onto the track of “business as usual.” We have no doubt, however, that the means are present for the governor and the members of the 85th General Assembly and their successors to regain the high ground and eventually to erase the stain of unconstitutionality from Arkansas’s public schools."
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