La. Court Dismisses Finance Case With One Sentence; Appeal Promised

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A group of Louisiana school districts that sued the state to get additional education funding has vowed to appeal the dismissal of the case by a state appeals court.

The 3-2 ruling last month by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge was not decided on the merits of the case. But the one-sentence opinion delivered a setback to the plaintiffs, who allege that the state endows K-12 education in a manner so inadequate as to violate the state constitution.

The judges essentially ruled that it is not the courts that should have jurisdiction in determining school funding, but the legislature and the state school board.

The class action, Charlet v. Legislature, was to have gone to trial March 13. A district court had concluded that the case should be heard and denied the state's request for a dismissal. But the state appealed, and the appellate panel agreed to dismiss the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Orleans Parish school board filed the suit in 1992. It does not seek a specific dollar amount for the schools.

In addition to Orleans Parish in New Orleans, five other impoverished parishes joined in the original suit. The ACLU is seeking a court order for a plan that would provide an adequate and equitable education to children statewide.

School Conditions Cited

Joe Cook, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said that the plaintiffs would appeal the ruling to the state supreme court. "Of course, we're disappointed at the decision," he said, "although we're determined to move ahead."

He said the case was meant to address the "Third World conditions" that exist in some schools--roofs caving in, inoperable bathrooms, outdated textbooks, or no textbooks at all.

Gov. Mike Foster wanted the case dismissed because he believes funding decisions should not be made in the courts, said Louann A. Bierlein, his education policy adviser. But, she said, the Republican governor and the legislature made a commitment last year to fully pay for the state's distribution formula by 2000, and more than $300 million will be added cumulatively over the next four years.

The findings about school conditions brought forth in the ACLU's case "are of concern," Ms. Bierlein said. But, she added, adequacy issues will always represent an open debate, and ultimately the school districts must bear the responsibility of levying local taxes to the fullest. Some districts do not now do that, she argued.

With the changes to the funding formula, Ms. Bierlein said, there is now "a serious momentum bringing the state toward 'doing the right thing.'"

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