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Ala. Judge Asked To Extend Deadline for Finance Reforms

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Alabama lawmakers will not try again to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to enact court-ordered education-finance reforms. Now, a state judge must decide whether to extend the deadline, and whether to approve a plan to distribute state aid for the upcoming school year that takes only small steps toward equity.

At a July 22 hearing, lawyers for the state asked Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene W. Reese to give lawmakers more time. They told the judge they were optimistic that next year's legislative session would yield changes.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs in the equity-funding lawsuit objected and expressed skepticism that such changes would take place.

"It's been all talk and no results thus far,'' said C.C. (Bo) Torbert, a lawyer representing a group of poor school districts.

Last year, Judge Reese found the state school system to be unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable. He set Sept. 30 as a deadline by which the state must enact a new school-finance plan.

But in two legislative sessions this year, lawmakers failed to fully address either improving the quality of education in Alabama or how to more fairly distribute money to schools.

A week before last month's hearing, Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. announced that he would not call a second special legislative session this summer as he had planned.

"Just to call a special session that doesn't have any results, that's an exercise in futility,'' said Chris Grimshawe, the Governor's press secretary.

Political Pressures

"The message to Judge Reese is the reality of the legislative process is we have tried and we are not doing well with them,'' Mr. Grimshawe said.

But he predicted that the climate for reform would be more favorable after the November elections.

The legislators are not the only ones under electoral pressure. Mr. Folsom is seeking to be elected for the first time in his own right after filling the unexpired term of former Gov. Guy Hunt. Mr. Hunt was ousted from office after his conviction on an ethics charge.

Mr. Folsom's Republican opponent is a former governor, Fob James, who has vowed to introduce no new taxes. School reforms that would satisfy Judge Reese's order would almost certainly require new taxes.

Judge Reese made no decision on whether to extend his deadline, but asked lawyers to discuss with their clients the possibility of using a mediator to settle some of the issues in the case.

"The judge is becoming frustrated, and he's looking for avenues to move this case to fruition by looking at outside options like a mediator,'' said Dean R. Argo, a spokesman for the state department of education.

Both Mr. Torbert and Victoria Farr, the associate director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the program's lead lawyer in the equity-funding case, said a court-appointed mediator might be a good idea.

"It would probably be very helpful, at least on some issues,'' Ms. Farr said.

Dividing the Pot

While the legislature failed to approve a reform plan, lawmakers did decide during the regular session that ended April 25 to make changes this year in the way state school aid is distributed. However, in anticipation of further debate, they simply voted to place $1.75 billion of the $1.9 billion 1994-95 state education budget in an "equity pool,'' without deciding how that money would be doled out.

On July 21, the state board of education approved a plan put forth by Governor Folsom for distributing the funds. It has been about 30 years since the state board--rather than the legislature--passed out state aid to schools, said Harry Toothaker, a spokesman for the state department of education.

He said the board approved the plan by a 7-to-1 vote.

The distribution plan would make use of a formula that has been on the books since 1935. It parcels out funding to school districts based on enrollment counts and divides it into four categories to be spent on teacher salaries, transportation, capital outlays, and other current expenses.

The amount of money distributed through the formula has remained static since 1939, and lawmakers have targeted additional funds for specific purposes, such as special or vocational education. Sometimes, money was granted to a particular district with clout in the capital.

State officials said that by eliminating this "pork,'' which Mr. Argo said amounts to about 10 percent of the state education budget, the distribution plan would be more equitable.

Such a method gives local school boards much greater discretion in spending their money, although federal and state mandates require certain levels of spending for such purposes as special education.

"It is almost instant site-based management,'' Mr. Argo said.

Enough Equity?

The plan would also abandon another practice that has effectively aided more affluent school systems.

State funds pay the salaries of a certain number of teachers based on student enrollments. But the state has also paid Social Security and retirement costs for extra teachers hired by more affluent districts. That would not happen this year under the Governor's plan.

But plaintiffs in the finance case objected to the plan.

Mr. Torbert noted that the distribution formula is based on a law Judge Reese has deemed unconstitutional.

It does nothing to equalize the amount of money districts can raise through local property taxes, he added, as wealthy districts would get the same amount of state aid per student as poorer ones.

Every district is required by state law to levy a minimum level of property or other taxes, which Mr. Torbert said generates $85 per student in the state's most property-poor district and $750 per student in the wealthiest district.

Mr. Torbert said he asked Judge Reese to order state officials to distribute state aid in such a way that each district receives at least $700 per student without exceeding the minimum levy. That would take about $300 million of the $1.75 million available for distribution, he said.

Time is running out for districts that begin classes this month, although they technically operate on last year's budget until the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

The judge asked lawyers for both sides to submit written arguments on the merits of the distribution scheme, and indicated that he may hold a hearing on the issue before reaching a decision.

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