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Judge Upholds Finance System, But Rejects Smaller Aid Progams

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A Wyoming judge has ruled that, while the state's main school-funding program meets constitutional requirements, three of the programs meant to focus other aid to classrooms must be replaced.

In a case that has pitted the state's large school districts against smaller ones, District Judge Nicholas G. Kalokathis last month declared that the evidence presented in a 15-day trial paints "a complex picture of school-finance shortcomings.'' Nevertheless, he found that the large districts suing the state were not able to prove the system should be overturned. (See Education Week, Oct. 15, 1993.)

The three programs struck down by the judge were the state's recapture system, which allows some local property taxes to remain in wealthy districts; a method for calculating aid to school districts in cities; and a provision that allows for locally levied property taxes.

Neither side found the decision particularly satisfying. The large districts that brought the case promised an appeal to the state supreme court, which observers said could put off resolution of the issue until after the 1995 legislative session.

Lawyers for the state, who won on the large point of the overall funding system, still faulted the judge's other rulings.

"Unless someone can prove harm to someone's education, these issues should be up to the legislature to decide,'' said Rowena Heckert, the senior assistant attorney general who argued the case for the state.

'Whining and Wanting'

Supporters of the existing system argue that, since a 1982 school-finance ruling, the state has transformed its funding system into one that largely neutralizes local wealth, sets a statewide property tax, and attempts to distribute aid based on local need.

But that distribution, which is based on a classroom count rather than on enrollment, favors small and rural schools that usually have fewer students in each class. The resulting disparity in per-pupil aid has long been a sore spot with administrators of larger systems.

State officials, on the other hand, argue that the state has made an effort to recognize the economic differences among schools.

"Mostly, this case is about people whining and wanting more money by saying the system is not quite fair,'' Ms. Heckert said.
Officials in a group of 22 small schools that combined to join the state's case said they are concerned that any effort to drastically reshape the current school-finance system will mean less money for everyone.

Despite pressure to modify the funding programs the judge struck down, lawmakers said it was unclear whether the issue will be tackled in the legislature next year.

While the case has not been the overriding issue facing Wyoming educators, observers said it has caused some contention with the state and the small districts at odds with the large districts and the Wyoming Education Association.

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