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School system awaits adequate funding suit ruling

Both sides in a lawsuit alleging Georgia skimps when it comes to school spending are in anticipation of a judge's ruling on whether the case can go forward following a hearing in late June.

And McDuffie County School officials are among those eagerly awaiting word from the suit.

Saying funding for schools is largely a county responsibility and judicial involvement in budget decisions would compromise the separation of powers, lawyers for the state asked Fulton County Senior Judge Elizabeth Long to dismiss the lawsuit. They said the General Assembly and the governor are responsible for writing annual spending plans.

"This is, I suggest, 100 percent a political judgment call," said Alfred Evans Jr., who argued the state's case.

But attorneys representing the 51 school districts that brought the suit countered that the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure students have a chance for a decent education and that any court order would only force officials to do what they're supposed to do in the first place.

"The state education program and its arbitrary method of financing ... have had disastrous results for the plaintiffs, the students of our state," said Amy Totenberg, who helped argue the case for the school districts.

The consortium's 51 member districts include McDuffie and Jefferson counties. McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Mark Petersen feels optimistic that the lawsuit will proceed.

"The argument that the state has is that education is a local function. Well, the state constitution says otherwise. The state constitution says that it's a function of the state's," he said.

Many of the arguments during the hearing cited a 1981 Georgia Supreme Court decision in McDaniel v. Thomas, a lawsuit charging that the system was unconstitutional because funding wasn't equal for the dozens of school districts across the state. The high court threw that case out.

The new suit claims the state doesn't spend enough on education to begin with, a problem that strikes particularly hard against poor, rural districts.

"I think our boys and girls are being short-changed by the way that they're funding that," Dr. Petersen said. "The inner donut in Atlanta is woefully unfair to everyone else, and the amount of legislators you have that come from the donut are more than everybody else. That's done by population."

Mr. Evans argued that the old case still applied and ruled out a challenge to the state's funding of the Quality Basic Education formula used to divvy up money among Georgia school districts. That formula was developed after the 1981 ruling.

"It's been decided by McDaniel that the QBE is a legislative decision," he said. "It is not a constitutional mandate."

Mr. Evans also said that for courts to get involved in defining how much education funding is "adequate" would inject the judiciary into a budget-making process that should be left to elected representatives.

"Adequacy by its nature is not self-defining, and it is, much as beauty, in the eye of the beholder," he said.

But lawyers for the districts said that nothing in the high court's earlier decision kept them from filing a lawsuit. And they pointed out that Georgia's graduation rates are among the worst in the nation, saying that alone proved the state was doing something wrong.

"These burdens fall most heavily on the plaintiff districts and students in those districts," Ms. Totenberg said.

Courts in several states have decided in favor of school systems in similar cases, she pointed out. "Those courts were not activist."

Judge Long did not indicate when she might decide whether the case can move forward.

"I will rule as soon as I can," she said.

Supporters of the lawsuit say Judge Long's ruling will be critical. They say a decision now will clear away many of the legal maneuvers available to the state and lead to a trial dealing largely with facts.

"We're simply asking for the opportunity to present evidence," said Joe Martin, executive director of the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, the umbrella group for the districts suing the state.



Web posted on Thursday, July 7, 2005











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