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Kentucky Districts Plan To Sue State To Achieve Equal Funding

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A coalition of school districts in Kentucky has announced plans to file suit against the state within three weeks, in what it calls the "last chance" to achieve equal funding among school systems in that state.

The Council for Better Education, founded last May, represents 66 of the state's 180 districts. Its members claim that Kentucky's school-finance system favors wealthier districts at the expense of poorer ones and that the state has not spent enough money to equalize resources.

"We think the basic question needs to be answered: Should a child's educational opportunity be subject to the wealth of the district he or she happens to live in?" said Frank Hatfield, superintendent of the Bullitt County schools, who was recently named president of the council. Mr. Hatfield confirmed that the council has directed its attorneys to file suit.

A likely focus of the suit will be disparities resulting from what the council contends is an overreliance on the property tax.

"The average child in Dayton, Ky., has a net worth behind him of roughly $30,000," said Jack Moreland, superintendent of the Dayton Independent School District and a member of the council's five-member steering committee. "About four miles up the road, we have a rather affluent school district, basically the same size as ours, and the net worth is roughly $230,000 per child."

"Now, I realize you don't equate everything in terms of dollars and cents, but if there's that big a disparity, then there must be something wrong with the basic equity program as it currently exists," Mr. Moreland added.

Previously Threatened

The council first threatened a lawsuit last June, in a position paper that enumerated unsuccessful attempts over 18 years to reform the state's system of aid to schools.

The threat prompted an immediate and angry reaction from a number of state officials. Even though several key officials agree that inequities exist between Kentucky's school districts, they call the suit "foolhardy" and say they will fight it.

Alice McDonald, superintendent of public instruction, contended that the lawsuit, if successful, would benefit no one while diminishing local control. Members of the General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Education joined Ms. McDonald in denouncing the planned court action.

According to Mr. Moreland, the council tried to cooperate with legislators before making a final decision to sue. But Mr. Hatfield said the legislature's failure to act heightened the impatience of council members.

"We've been moving toward [litigation] ever since we started," he said. "In the meantime, we've been generating support."

According to Mr. Hatfield, each of the 66 participating districts has agreed to help finance the suit, pledging 50 cents for each student in average daily attendance for a total of about $80,000.

Ms. McDonald has said that if this procedure involves the use of state money, she will seek an injunction as soon as the suit is filed, alleging improper use of state funds.

But Mr. Hatfield said an assistant state attorney general has advised the council that support for the suit is a legal expenditure. "We think they've written a favorable opinion, but it hasn't been released,'' he said.

Constitutional Challenge

The council will challenge the state's system of school aid on constitutional grounds, Mr. Hatfield said. Kentucky's constitution calls for an "efficient" and "common" system of schools, which the council said requires the state to make greater efforts than it has to equalize resources among districts.

A lawyer for the council said a class action will probably be filed in a state court. But the lawyer, Debra Dawahare, said many matters related to the filing of the suit have yet to be resolved, such as which court it will be filed in, who will be named as plaintiffs and defendants, and how the issues will be framed. Ms. Dawahare said the suit may allege violation of federal equal-protection statutes, in addition to the state constitution.

Previous challenges in federal courts have proven unsuccessful since 1973, when the Supremeel15lCourt ruled in Rodriguez v. San Antonio that education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Dawahare acknowledged the "powerful precedent" of Rodriguez, but added, "perhaps all equal-protection claims have not been forever barred."

Power Equalization

Kentucky provides a minimum foundation of financial support per pupil and an equalization formula to aid property-poor districts.

The state legislature last attempt-ed to address the equity problem in 1978, when it created the power-equalization program. However, Mr. Moreland said, the legislature has never appropriated enough money to adequately fund it.

According to Mr. Hatfield, the program was supposed to equalize district spending at a rate of about 30 cents for every $100 of local valuations, the statewide average. The legislature initially appropriated funds to equalize for nearly 10 cents, but now equalizes for less than 6 cents, he said.

When the state budget gets tight, "equalization money is one of the first things to get cut," Mr. Hatfield said. "We think that's going to continue to happen. ... We have the mechanisms to do what needs to be done, we just haven't done it. If the courts say it must be done, then we'll get it done."

Mr. Hatfield also charged that the wealthiest districts get a larger share of the state's foundation aid, because, he said, they offer more special programs and employ more highly paid teachers.

According to a report on school finance produced in 1983 by a 23-member commission appointed by Raymond Barber, who was then state superintendent of public instruction, the wealthiest districts in the state spend nearly twice as much per pupil as the poorest districts. The panel recommended that $50 million be added to the equalization program to lower the disparities.

When the report was released, Superintendent Barber warned that the state might be vulnerable to litigation if the disparities were not corrected. The legislature did not put any additional funds into the state's equalization program in the 1984 session, and since the state operates on a biennial budget, the legislature does not meet this year.

A spokesman for Gov. Martha Layne Collins all but ruled out the possibility of a special session to forestall the lawsuit.

Large State Contribution

State Representative Jody Richards, chairman of the House education committee and co-chairman of the joint committee, said the legisla-ture has tried to address the equity issue over the years. He said Kentucky already spends 65 percent of its budget on education, adding that many school districts receive 75 percent of their money from the state.

"We need to have more state funding. I don't think there's any question about that," Mr. Richards said, but he added that "it's not fair" to propose a lawsuit without first giving the legislature a chance to address the finance issue.

"I've been chairman of the House education committee since 1977," he said, "and no education group has ever, to my knowledge, made equity one of the major items on its agenda."

Officials from some of Kentucky's wealthier districts have also been critical of the equalization program, arguing that some of the poorer districts have not attempted to raise revenue on their own before turning to the state.

In answer to these complaints, the 1984 General Assembly approved legislation that cuts off all power-equalization funds to local districts that do not have a minimum tax rate of 15 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The minimal tax rate affected 35 school districts with tax rates below 1 cent, according to Representative Richards. He added that the tax rate "really ought to be at least 25 cents."

But he and others point out that "even when you do that, we have some districts in Kentucky that, because of their low cumulative property valuation, simply would not be able to fund their schools adequately at even 25 cents minimum plus what they get from the state."

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