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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Settlement of School Equity Case Caught Up in Calif. Budget Battle

Settlement of School Equity Case Caught Up in Calif. Budget Battle

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California leaders are working to settle a school finance lawsuit filed in 1999 on behalf of needy students over the decrepit facilities and a lack of equal educational opportunities in their schools.

At press time late last week, state leaders were hammering out a deal by which the state would pay a reported $188 million to low-income districts to settle the Williams v. State of California lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other advocacy groups filed the suit.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to settle the lawsuit when he took office last year, rather than continue to fight it in court.

Late last month, the settlement appeared to be near certain, with one question remaining: how to find the necessary money in the state budget for fiscal 2005, which began July 1.

But budget negotiations broke down over the Fourth of July weekend, mainly because of a dispute over the amount of funding that would be given to local governments. The Democratic- led legislature took a recess, and Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, traveled across the state to try to drum up support for his plans before meeting with lawmakers again last week.

The state is facing an estimated $12 billion budget shortfall for 2005, out of a budget expected to be about $90 billion, in spite of a $15 billion bond voters approved in March to shore up the gap.

The 1999 class action was filed on behalf of some 1 million needy students. It argues that conditions in the students’ districts, such as crowded classrooms, rundown facilities, and outdated textbooks, make it impossible to receive an adequate education.

The lawsuit also contends that the state is violating its laws that guarantee minimum standards for education, and it asks the state court to ensure that schools receive basic educational provisions, including adequate facilities, qualified teachers, and textbooks.

Of the $188 million proposed for the districts, about $138 million would go for instructional supplies. The rest would go toward maintenance of school facilities, according to news reports and sources familiar with the negotiations. The settlement also reportedly would require all students to attend school for 180 days out of the year, instead of the 163-day schedule used by some overcrowded districts, such as the 746,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

‘A Shame’

The ACLU lawyers involved in the funding discussions were unable to comment on the negotiations, Tenoch Flores, a spokesman for the organization’s office in Los Angeles, said last week. Representatives from MALDEF did not return calls seeking comment.

Ashley Snee, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said Mr. Schwarzenegger remained optimistic that a settlement in the Williams case and the budget could be reached within a few days.

"They’ve made substantial progress," she said last week. "The governor has consistently maintained his desire to resolve the issues raised in the Williams suit."

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, had countersued the districts in a move that angered school officials and ran up a bill of more than $18 million in fees for lawyers and expert witnesses. Mr. Schwarzenegger has criticized that move.

"It’s a shame that we as a state have neglected the inner-city schools," the governor told reporters on June 29, according to the Sacramento Bee. "It’s terrible. It never should have happened."

Advocates for the students have named more than 20 districts that would share in a settlement. More could be added. The 46 schools that were named in the lawsuit are in high-poverty areas and have high concentrations of minority students and English-language learners, the students who are most likely to be affected by the poor conditions, according to court documents.

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Page 26

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