Legislators are still considering how, or whether, to respond to a ruling by the state Supreme Court that changes the way the state funds public schools.
On Nov. 29, the Court ruled 4-3 in Kimbrell vs. McCleskey that the high-property-value Eureka Springs and Fountain Lake school districts should keep property taxes collected above the state minimum.
Amendment 74, passed by the voters in 1996, set a uniform rate of taxation of 25 mills for each school district for maintenance and operation. Each district is required to collect at least that amount, which is sent to the state, increased with other funds, and then redistributed to all schools so that each district had a minimum per-pupil foundation.
The Eureka Springs and Fountain Lake School Districts, and a few others, have been unusual in that those districts collected more than the foundation amount with that 25 mills even without the infusion of extra state funds. They still were required to send the excess to the state. They sued, and won, in order to keep the excess.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has asked the Court to rehear the case, which rarely happens. Moreover, two of the dissenters are being replaced by new justices.
Some in the state’s education community view the ruling as a threat to a school funding structure that had taken decades and three court cases to resolve. In a December speech to Arkansas school board members, Gov. Mike Beebe traced the evolution of the school funding debate back to 1982. Beebe was one of the principal authors of Amendment 74, the constitutional amendment that the Court reinterpreted in its recent ruling.
“If you can start tinkering with parts of that decision, if you can start saying that parts of that constitutional amendment are subject to really totally different kinds of interpretation than anybody ever thought, if you can do all that on this issue, what can you do on other issues?” he asked.
Supporters of the Supreme Court’s latest ruling will have a powerful ally in House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman (R-Hot Springs), who until 2010 was a member of the Fountain Lake School Board.
Westerman is not considering filing a bill clarifying the language because he always believed the existing statute clearly awarded the money to Fountain Lake, and now a court decision is affirming that. He and Rep. Bryan King (R-Eureka Springs) introduced a bill on behalf of their districts in 2011, but it never made it out of the House Education Committee.
Westerman said that he had not heard from any members about their plans for addressing the issue. “Nobody has told me that, that they’re going to file a bill on it, but they probably know how I feel about it,” he said.
Sen. Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett), said legislation will be introduced to change the law, but he hasn’t gotten a feel for how legislators are leaning. “The people I talk to, about half feel like, yeah, there should be (legislation to address the ruling), and the other half feel like that money really belongs to the school district and should not be put in the state’s pot to be divvied up among everybody else. … I’m having a hard time myself making up my mind,” he said.
Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said legislators’ reaction to the ruling depends on the districts they represent. “I’ve heard Republicans make public statements that, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem we need to fix,’ and I’ve heard Republicans make statements that, ‘Hey, the court ruled correctly.’ So, no, I don’t think there’s going to be a position that can be assigned a party label.”