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Court Takes School-Finance Suit

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether the 11th Amendment bars a group of northern Mississippi counties from pursuing a multi-million-dollar school-finance lawsuit against the state.

By agreeing to hear the case, Papasan v. Mississippi (Case No. 85-499), the Court raised the possibility that it would examine what the counties called "the twilight zone" that now exists between its two leading rulings on the politically sensitive subject of equitable distribution of educational resources.

Lawyers representing the 23 northern counties said they were hopeful that the Court would use the case to expand upon its precedent-setting decisions in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) and Plyler v. Doe (1982).

In those cases, the Court laid out principles for determining whether inequities in the distribution of educational resources among a state's school districts or among various classes of students represent violations of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

But some leading experts on school-finance law questioned whether the Justices would take4that step, given the legal history and the complexity of the suit.

'16th Section' Lands

At issue in the case is Mississippi's administration of "16th section" lands, which were set aside by the federal government under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 to promote public education in the young nation. Under the law, territories that wished to become states accepted title to the lands and pledged to use all proceeds from their sale or lease to support public schools.

In the 1840's, the Mississippi legislature sold the school lands in the 23 northern counties and invested the proceeds in loans to the state's railroads. Most of the investment was lost when the railroads were destroyed during the Civil War.

Since then, the legislature has appropriated funds annually to replace the interest lost on the failed loans. The amount set aside for the northern counties, however, has not kept pace with the rate of increase in the value of the southern counties' 16th-section land investments. In 1980, for example, the northern counties received an average of 80 cents per student from the state, while the southern counties earned an average of $31.25 per student on their investments.

A large group of school superintendents, school-board members, and schoolchildren filed suit against the state in June 1981, contending that it had breached a binding contract by unwisely investing the proceeds from the sale of the 16th-section lands in the years before the Civil War.

Deprived Children

They also contended that the state violated both the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the 14th Amendment by depriving children in the northern counties of a minimally adequate education.

To remedy the situation, the plaintiffs requested that the court grant a permanent injunction ordering the state to establish a fund that would provide them with annual income reasonably equivalent to what they would enjoy if the lands had never been sold. Initially, they sought to have the injunction applied retroactively, but later amended their motion to seek only prospective relief.

A federal district judge dismissed the case in January 1984, holding that the state was immune from such suits under the 11th Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision five months later.

State Appropriation

The state legislature this past summer appropriated $1 million for the current school year to help offset the financial imbalance between the northern and southern counties' school-land revenues. It also pledged to boost that amount to $5-million annually by 1991. (See Education Week, Aug. 21, 1985.)

However, the state auditor released a report in November 1984 noting that if the northern counties still controlled the school lands, they would be earning an additional $7-million annually. The financial situation is so severe, said the auditor, Ray Mavus, that some school districts have engaged in technical violations of state accounting and budgeting laws in order to remain solvent.

"Many of the schools will be bankrupt if we enforce the law," Mr. Mavus said in his report. "It has put the state auditor in a position of [choosing between] enforcing the law and closing public education in some school districts, or allowing these technical violations to continue. Neither solution is acceptable."

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