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Published in Print: February 4, 2004, as As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action

As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action

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The Arkansas Supreme Court will appoint a special master to oversee compliance with a ruling that requires the state to overhaul its school aid system.

The court acted after the legislature failed to meet a first-of-the-year deadline for coming up with a funding plan.

Just hours after state Attorney General Mike Beebe asked the justices to give the legislature more time to act, the court ruled on Jan. 22 that because lawmakers had not structured a plan to meet the high court's 2002 decision a special master would oversee compliance.

The court did not lay out a timeline for when a master would be appointed or who that person would be.

Lawmakers have been hunkered down in negotiations and often-bitter debates for nearly two months in the longest special session in the state's history to come up with a plan to fulfill the mandates of the finance ruling. The decision, which came in a lawsuit filed by lawyers representing the rural Lake View district, found Arkansas' school finance system to be unconstitutional because it creates vast inequities between low-income and wealthier districts. The court gave lawmakers a year to act. ("Court Orders Arkansas to Fix K- 12 Funding," Dec. 4, 2002.)

The special session, however, has been bogged down in debates over plans by Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, and some legislators to consolidate the state's smallest school districts.

Conflicting Views

While the court ruling did not require consolidation, the governor and others see it as the best way to produce a more efficient school system. Rural educators and some lawmakers have fought those plans.

In a sign of how contentious the situation has become, Mr. Huckabee on Jan. 26 wrote to the state attorney general requesting that he be allowed to hire outside legal counsel to represent the governor's office in the school funding case. The attorney general has said he will grant that request.

"It's evident that the executive and legislative branches have far different views of how we should address the mandate of the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Lake View case," the governor said in a statement. "It would be difficult for the attorney general to represent both the legislative and executive branches given this situation.

"I'm particularly disturbed," he continued, "by the rhetoric of some legislative leaders who display a lack of respect for the judicial process. There have been widely published comments from legislators who have questioned the integrity of the court."

Speaker of the House Hershel W. Cleveland, a Democrat, has questioned the role of the state supreme court's chief justice in appointing a special master. Chief Justice Betty Dickey was the governor's chief legal counsel when Mr. Huckabee appointed her to the high court this past December.

Mr. Beebe, the attorney general, said in an interview last week that he had not anticipated the governor's request to seek outside counsel.

"We were a bit surprised," he said. "The usual thing to happen is that everyone would be rowing the boat in the same direction."

It's still not clear, the attorney general added, what role a special master will play. "It means whatever the court wants it to mean," he said. "That sounds like a flippant answer, but it's not."

'Becoming Worrisome'

Lawmakers have made some progress, despite the difficulty in reaching consensus over a range of issues. At the end of December, they passed a stopgap school funding plan to help the state's poorest districts buy computers, hire literacy specialists, and provide after-school instruction. ("Ark. Lawmakers Settle for Stopgap School Aid Plan," Jan. 7, 2004.)

A plan for consolidating districts with fewer than 350 students became law on Jan. 27 without the governor's signature.

"If this is what they want to put their signature on and their stamp on, then I should let them," Gov. Huckabee told reporters during a news conference, referring to state legislators. "Even though I think that's pathetically less than what we ought to be shooting for, it will let the public see that that's the best they could offer."

The governor is still considering whether he will put his proposal to consolidate districts with fewer than 1,500 students before voters.

A funding-formula plan that would increase annual state education spending by about $400 million, to an overall total of some $2.4 billion, has also gained the approval of the legislature. Lawmakers are now debating how to come up with the money.

Dan Farley, the executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, said he had never seen a more difficult session. "There are a whole plethora of tax bills that are laying there, but so far none has the blessing of the committees," he said. "It's becoming worrisome to all of us."

Vol. 23, Issue 21, Pages 16,20

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