Ala. School Boards Challenge Nonschool Appropriations

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The Alabama Association of School Boards is asking a judge to bar the legislature from sending more than $211 million in state education dollars to charities, private colleges, and education-related programs run by state agencies other than the education department.

Sandra Sims-degraffenreid

In a petition filed in the circuit court for Montgomery County this month, the school group charged that by giving money earmarked for public schools and colleges to private and nonschool groups, the state is inhibiting its ability to provide Alabama's elementary and secondary students with an adequate, equitable education, as guaranteed by the state constitution.

The action could affect any unspent dollars among the $211 million in spending from this fiscal year's $3.6 billion education budget, or the anticipated more than $211 million in the $3.8 billion budget for fiscal 1999, which begins Oct. 1 in Alabama.

"We need to pay for the basics first," said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, the executive director of the school boards' association, which represents Alabama's 128 districts.

"For the state to take money that should be going to students and give it to other agencies, we believe is fiscally irresponsible," she added.

Spending Tradition

The association was also expected to file a request for a declaratory judgment on other constitutional issues related to the state's education budgeting process last Friday.

Such actions are the latest attempts to route more state money to classrooms, which, school advocates say, remain woefully underfunded even years after a 1993 state circuit court's ruling declaring Alabama's school funding system inadequate and inequitable.

But the legal action challenges a long-standing tradition in Alabama of sending some K-12 dollars to entities other than schools.

If approved by the circuit court for Montgomery County, where the state capital of Montgomery is located, the June 5 injunction request could affect more than 150 education appropriations for programs operated by groups ranging from a children's hospital to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

The petition would apply only to money that groups receive through the Education Trust Fund, the state's $3.8 billion pot for public K-12 and postsecondary education expenses. It would not prohibit any of the groups from receiving state funding from other sources.

But such a shift might not be easy for every organization.

For example, for the Epilepsy Foundation of North and Central Alabama, one of the organizations that receive money from the trust fund, losing $100,000 in state education funding would make it difficult to continue to provide Alabama teachers with the training they need to work with students with epilepsy, said Stann Garris, the executive director of the Birmingham-based foundation.

Working in schools with students and teachers accounts for roughly a third of the work the foundation does, she said.

Tapping other funding sources "would be starting over," Ms. Garris said. "It would be a long process, two or three years at least, to gain that kind of funding."

'Robbing' Taxpayers?

Approving education funding for a nonstate agency requires approval from at least two-thirds of the legislature to pass--impressive legislative support that the funding recipients received in this session, as well as in years past.

Alabama lawmakers often pay lip service to the need to funnel more money directly into classrooms, but approving state dollars for individual groups fuels their desire to "bring back home the bacon," Ms. Sims-deGraffenried said. "That's hard to fight against in an election year."

Still, some state lawmakers, including Rep. Riley Seibenhener, say they wholeheartedly support the school board association's recent legal action.

Mr. Seibenhener said he believes that giving non-public-school groups money from the Education Trust Fund is wrong, and he has voted accordingly.

"What we're doing is robbing the taxpayer and giving it to charities," the Republican lawmaker said in an interview last week. "You can't have it both ways. You can't say schools are underfunded and then divert their money to these places."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 26

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Ala. School Boards Challenge Nonschool Appropriations
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