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A coalition of Alabama school boards has filed a lawsuit calling for drastic changes in the way the state funds its schools.

The suit charges that the current system "presents impermissible barriers to equal educational opportunity" by making education funding for any given child "dependent upon the relative wealth and tax effort of the school system in which he or she happens to reside."

The suit, which is similar to finance challenges under way in a dozen states, asks state officials to design a new system that ensures equal educational opportunity for local school systems "without regard to their wealth." (See Education Week, May 2, 1990.)

The suit charges that the current system has created wide variances in funding, favoring wealthy districts and resulting in inadequate services, outdated materials, and decrepit and overcrowded classrooms in poorer districts.

The suit names as defendants Gov. Guy Hunt and a number of other state officials. At least two of the defendants, State Superintendent of Education Wayne Teague and Speaker of the House James S. Clark, have indicated they support the suit.

Missouri Districts Mount Partial Finance Challenge

Three Missouri school districts have filed suit against the state's school-finance formula. They are not asking that the entire system be struck down, however.

"Our lawsuit is very focused on a particular factor of the formula,'' said Gail F. Williams, superintendent of the Lee's Summit R-7 district, which is one of the plaintiffs.

Since the state's per-pupil allotment is based on the previous year's enrollment, she said, growing districts receive less money than they need, while shrinking districts receive more. The plaintiffs are asking that the state fund districts according to their current-year enrollment.

For that to happen, the court must declare the "prior-year constraint" provision of the state's funding formula unconstitutional.

According to the plaintiffs' lawyer, about half of the state's 544 districts would receive more funding if the provision is ruled invalid.

The three districts are suburbs of either Kansas City or St. Louis. Each is gaining students yearly, according to Ms. Williams.

The Kansas legislature adjourned last week without approving property-tax curbs sought by Gov. Mike Hayden.

Lawmakers were unable to agree on a proposal to roll back property taxes, and declined to put before the voters a proposed constitutional revision to overturn a 1986 property-classification amendment.

The legislature passed, however, a measure to limit the amount of taxes collected by cities and counties. Under the bill, school districts would be able to raise property taxes for their operating expenses, but not for construction and other capital improvements.

A spokesman for Mr. Hayden said he was unlikely to call a special session on property taxes because of the lack of consensus in the legislature on the issue.

Ohio voters last week rejected tax issues for 52.8 percent of the school districts that had them on the ballot.

Tax issues were on the ballot in 214 of the state's 612 districts--more than at any other time in the past five years.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Franklin B. Walter said the large number of tax questions indicates that districts in the state are facing financial difficulties.

Last year, state voters approved 57.2 percent of the school-tax proposals before them.

Mr. Walter said he had "grave concerns" for those districts whose issues were rejected last week.

The Oklahoma legislature has approved a $35-million fund to reward schools that consolidate voluntarily.

The funds will go to the first 250 districts to consolidate or announce their intention to do so by July 1, 1991. About 70 districts are currently considering consolidation, according to an aide to the House education committee.

The consolidation proposal had been included in the major school-reform bill passed by the legislature last month.

The measure approved this month specifies that the money for the program will come from the state's "rainy day" fund, rather than partially from the general fund. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1990.)

The Colorado legislature has given final approval to a bill guaranteeing public-school students certain free-speech rights.

But Rhode Island lawmakers have killed a similar proposal.

Both measures were designed to mitigate the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which held that school officials have broad authority to censor student speech that arises as part of the school's curriculum. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1989.)

The Colorado measure, forwarded to Gov. Roy Romer this month, forbids prior restraint or censorship of student publications by school officials but requires districts to establish ethics codes for such materials. Students would not be allowed to invade privacy or to print libel, obscenity, or information that disrupts school activities.

The Rhode Island measure, defeated in the Senate by a vote of 32 to 15, would have given student editors responsibility for determining the content of student newspapers, but would have prohibited material that is obscene or incites unlawful acts. Opponents of the legislation argued that the Hazelwood decision allows students a reasonable amount of freedom.

Florida districts would be allowed to elect school-board members in nonpartisan elections, under a bill approved by a Senate panel.

Although current law requires each political party to nominate a school-board candidate, several counties have been authorized by special acts of the legislature to have nonpartisan elections after holding local referendums on the issue.

Several of those counties have faced legal challenges, however, and the state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional the process by which they allowed those referendums. (See Education Week, March 28, 1990.)

The bill that cleared the Senate elections committee this month would create a general law giving counties the right to decide by referendum whether to hold nonpartisan elections. It would also allow existing nonpartisan boards in six counties to remain that way unless successfully challenged in court.

The three counties whose special laws have already been ruled unconstitutional would have to put the issue to another referendum in order to restore nonpartisan boards.

Persons convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude" would be barred from owning private schools in Florida, under legislation passed by the House.

The bill would establish fingerprint checks for owners and top officials of private schools. Anyone found to have been convicted of an act that violates community moral sentiment or standards who continued to operate a school would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.

School owners would pay the costs of fingerprint checks. Other employees could also be checked at the option of the owner.

North Carolina school districts will have to cut their budgets by $20 million, rather than the previously stated target of $40 million, state officials have announced.

The reprieve means that most districts will be able to offer summer-school programs, which had been slated for cuts. (See Education Week, May 2, 1990.)

The state, citing "further review of current budget information," notified the state education department of the revised amount May 2. Some districts previously had threatened to close school for several days to make the necessary cuts, which were prompted by the state's $400-million revenue shortfall.

Districts are expected to be able to make the new cuts without affecting their instructional programs, a spokesman for the department said.

Illinois schools and local governments derive 35 percent of their revenue from property taxes--well above the national average of 28 percent, according to a report by the legislature's Economic and Fiscal Commission.

The schools' share of total property-tax revenues has dropped from 59.9 percent in 1970 to 57.6 percent in 1987, while counties, townships, and park districts have increased their share of tax collections over the same period, the report notes.

The study recommends that the state increase its income-tax rate--currently among the lowest in the nation--in order to allow local governments to reduce their levies.

Mississippi districts have more than doubled the income they get from "school trust" lands over the past decade, according to a report by Secretary of State Dick Molpus.

Last year, schools gained $10.1 million from leasing out 406,816 acres of "16th section" lands, a spokesman for Mr. Molpus explained. In 1980, they had earned $4.6 million on 492,521 acres.

Since taking office in 1984, Mr. Molpus has waged a vigorous campaign to get districts to increase their earnings on the lands, which were deeded for the purpose of public education in the 18th century.

School boards have had control of the 16th-section lands since 1978. Before that, control was with county governing boards, which in many cases allowed the properties to be used under lengthy leases that produced minimal revenues for the schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989.)

Vol. 09, Issue 34

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