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Published in Print: February 28, 2001, as Judge Orders Alabama To Spare Schools From Cutbacks

Judge Orders Alabama To Spare Schools From Cutbacks

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An Alabama circuit court judge last week blocked Gov. Donald Siegelman from cutting aid to K-12 classrooms by 6.2 percent and gave the legislature until early this week to devise another plan for plugging the state's deep midyear revenue hole.

Circuit Judge Tracey S. McCooey handed down the injunction on Feb. 22, just before state lawmakers went into a special session on school funding that the governor called the day before.

The judge declared that the proposed cuts, which lawmakers had little choice but to make under the state's current financing law, would violate the Alabama Constitution. "There is no question that a right exists which needs to be protected, specifically the right of every child in Alabama to receive an equitable and adequate education," she wrote.

The ruling came in a suit filed by a coalition of Alabama school groups and districts, including the Alabama Association of School Boards and three dozen poor districts, after the Democratic governor ordered the across- the-board cut in the state's education budget. ("State Budget Woes Hit Schools in Deep South," Feb. 14, 2001.)

Sharp drops in revenue from income and sales taxes that are earmarked for education dictated the cuts under existing law, which the governor said last week was neither wise nor fair to the state's schoolchildren.

But Gov. Siegelman also blasted the injunction as he put forward his own legislative package to deal with the shortfall. "One of Alabama's 150 circuit judges has decided to impose her own solution, one that quite frankly will make things worse because it will jeopardize higher standards and be devastating to higher education," he asserted.

Alabama's dedicated fund for education pays for colleges and universities as well as public schools, so higher education officials fear that sparing K-12 education could force devastating cuts on college campuses.

Deadline Is Tight

State leaders signaled last week that they were unlikely to meet Judge McCooey's deadline of Feb. 27 to come up with an alternative funding solution that would comply with her order. Legislative leaders were reported to be strongly considering an appeal.

But the groups that had challenged the cuts were jubilant. "It was a good day for Alabama's K-12 children," Susan Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the school boards' association, said of the ruling.

With higher education leaders voicing alarm, the Alabama board of education, which oversees two-year colleges as well as precollegiate schools, had a mixed reaction to the ruling.

"We are pleased there's been some measure of protection in K-12; however, we have some concerns over the continued funding problem for postsecondary institutions and even for universities," said Thomas E. Salter, a spokesman for the state education department.

Vol. 20, Issue 24, Page 17

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