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Published in Print: July 11, 2001, as Ala. Court Sides Against Schools In Fight Over Aid Cuts

Ala. Court Sides Against Schools In Fight Over Aid Cuts

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Reversing a lower court ruling that would have cushioned the impact on school districts of midyear state budget cuts, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that public schools and higher education institutions have to share the burden of such cuts equally whenever state revenues fall short.

In its June 29 decision, the court rejected districts' arguments that the state must take K-12 educators' salaries off the table before it can calculate across-the-board cuts mandated when state taxes for education are lower than expected. While K-12 salaries do indeed have to be shielded, the court said, it is up to districts to ensure that happens by coping with the state cuts—known as proration—without paring educators' pay.

"Had the legislature intended to remove K-12 salaries from the base amount to be prorated by the governor, it could easily have said so," Justice Thomas A. Woodall wrote in the court's opinion. "It did not do so, however, and we are not at liberty to rewrite the statutes."

The decision came under fire from some public school advocates, who argued that it will take a tough toll on the state's public elementary and secondary schools.

"The Alabama Supreme Court's decisions ... are devastating for the 740,000 public schoolchildren of our state," Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said in a statement. "We expect this to be a severe blow to most school boards." The AASB was one of the parties to the lawsuit.

The case arose after Gov. Donald Siegelman announced in February that, because of a shortfall in tax revenues, the state's $4.3 billion education budget for this fiscal year would have to be reduced by $266 million, or 6.2 percent.

K-12 vs. Colleges

The Democratic governor settled on an approach to those cuts that weighed more heavily on the state's public universities and two-year colleges than on K-12 schools, largely because he interpreted state law to mean that precollegiate salaries had to be excluded before the state cut funding across the board. The effect was to decrease funding for higher education institutions by more than 11 percent, while limiting cuts to K-12 schools to less than 4 percent.

Disputes over the governor's approach led to legal action pitting K-12 and higher education representatives against one another.

In response to complaints, the governor and legislature took steps to reduce and equalize the cuts previously ordered. The legislature backed a plan to allow the state to issue bonds for up to $110 million to help soften the impact of proration on whichever party lost in court. ( "Alabama OKs Bond Sale To Dull Pain Of Education Cuts," May 30, 2001.)

The result is that both education sectors now stand to sustain cuts of 3.76 percent in the fiscal year that ends in September.

"I have fought from the beginning to treat all levels of education fairly, and because we kept fighting to pass the bond issue, we can do just that," Gov. Siegelman said in a June 29 statement. "Our teachers and classrooms will be protected."

Gov. Siegelman said the state would act fast to sell bonds. A July 2 memo from Robert L. Morton, the Alabama Department of Education's assistant state superintendent, said the bond funds can be used by local districts for capital outlay, purchase and repair of equipment, and debts. "These funds will hopefully free up some local funds for other uses," he wrote.

But Sally Howell, the assistant executive director of the AASB, argues that those limitations mean the funds may not be helpful to many schools. "Getting additional relief for capital outlays isn't addressing the primary need" of personnel costs, she said.

Meanwhile, A. Gordon Stone, the executive director of the Higher Education Partnership, a coalition of the state's four-year public universities, called the decision a "huge victory" that "sends a message that higher education and K-12 are both essential components of public education."

This is not the first time that Alabama schools have faced midyear budget cuts. Indeed, state officials report that the education budget has been prorated more than a dozen times before.

Some argue that the current legal battle is just one symptom of a systemic problem. Indeed, many observers lament that lawmakers in Alabama appear unwilling to consider tax increases as a way to pay for education.

"They need to rethink the system," said Jim Watts, the vice president of state services for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, "because it doesn't match up with their aspirations for education."

Vol. 20, Issue 42, Page 23

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