Kentucky Senate Moves To Derail Districts' School-Finance Suit

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In an unprecedented attempt to block a lawsuit challenging the legality of its school-finance system, the Kentucky Senate has passed a bill that prevents the use of public funds to contest its appropriations.

The measure, Senate Bill 102, is aimed at undercutting a class-action suit brought last November by a council representing 66 of the state's 180 school districts.

The districts, most of which are property-poor, had planned to finance the suit by contributing an amount equal to 50 cents per child enrolled.

The Senate president pro tern, Joseph W. Prather, and the House speaker, Donald W. Blandford, are named as defendants in the suit, along with Gov. Martha Layne Collins, Superintendent of Public Instruction Alice McDonald, and Frances Jones Mills, the state treasurer.

The Kentucky House has yet to approve the Senate bill, but an education- committee staff member said last week there was a "good possibility" that it would.

A lawyer for the districts said last week that her firm may continue to press the suit without payment, because of its importance.

Underfunding Alleged

The districts that filed suit claim that the General Assembly has underfunded its 10-year old power-equalization program, resulting in wide disparities in the revenues available to districts.

The districts allege that the underfunding violates state and federal equal-protection guarantees, as well as the education clause of the state constitution, which calls for "an efficient system of common schools."

The defendants have denied the charges.

The suit, which represents the first major challenge to Kentucky's school-finance system in recent history, was filed only a few months after the General Assembly approved a $300-million education-reform package, including $67 million in new power-equalization funds.

The reform package has yet to be funded, because it was approved during a special session. A vote on funding is expected this year.

In addition, Governor Collins, a Democrat, has proposed a $16-million increase in power-equalization spending for the 1987-88 fiscal biennium, as part of a 3 percent across-the-board budget hike for the state education department.

Reforms Applauded

A spokesman for the districts said last week that he applauded the reform package but· that the power-equalization program would continue to be underfunded.

"The legislature probably made the greatest single step that's ever been made toward equalization and we supported that," said Frank Hatfield, the superintendent of schools in Bullit County, which is near Louisville.

"But when you totally assess where the schools stand, there's still too much disparity," he said.

According to Mr. Hatfield, the wealthiest district in the state this year raised $4,300 per child, compared with $1,786 per child in the poorest district.

Equalization Limited

The power-equalization program attempts to bring districts with little property wealth closer to the level of spending attained in wealthier districts. It is designed to supplement local property-tax receipts with state funds equal to the difference between the assessed valuation per child in a poor district with the valuation per child in the state's wealthiest district.

But the $41.1 million appropriated this year for the equalization program equalizes only the first 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. And it accounts for only a fraction of total state school aid, most of which$ 896 million this year-is distributed through an unequalized foundation formula.

Even with the increased funding included in the reform package, the state would equalize only the first 13 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, far less than the 25-cent goal envisioned when the program was started in 1976, state education officials confirmed.

Nonetheless, a spokesman for Ms. McDonald, the state superintendent, said she opposes the suit because she is "philosophically opposed to a lawsuit being filed against the state."

"She just feels we need to work with the legislature," the spokesman said, and that the money the districts are spending on the suit should be "spent on education, rather than suing the state."

'Perverse' Bill

According to school-finance experts, no other state has attempted to block a finance-equity suit by outlawing the use of public funds.

"No legislature has ever done that before," said David C. Long, who has represented the plaintiffs in many such suits. He said the bill "can't be defended on any principle."

"It expresses a kind of perverse vindictiveness toward those who challenge inequities," he said.

Vol. 05, Issue 22, Page 7

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