Consolidation Lawsuit in Arkansas Addresses Funding Issues


Last Updated: December 21, 2010
 

This article appeared in the December 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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The rural Deer-Mount Judea school district near the Ozark National Forest in northwest Arkansas has invoked the Lake View funding decision in a lawsuit aimed at stopping consolidation of its two small K–12 schools. The suit claims that the state is violating constitutional standards established by the Lake View decisions and state laws enacted in response.

More specifically, the lawsuit claims that the state knows small remote schools are underfunded but chooses to close them rather than provide the funding they need without considering whether excessive transportation time denies students a substantially equal opportunity for an adequate education. The lawsuit asks the state to address funding disparities, establish a 45-minute one-way bus ride limit, and halt consolidation of small remote districts while these issues are being resolved.

The state’s Act 60 sets a minimum school district enrollment of 350 students. Deer-Mount Judea has 360 students in two K–12 schools.

In a 112-page pleading, Deer-Mount Judea’s attorneys delineate how inadequate funding, especially for transportation, has kept the district from providing a constitutionally adequate education. In 2008–09, Deer-Mount Judea spent $313,811 on student transportation but received only about one-third that amount from the state for transportation. The district claims it was forced to respond by diverting money from other programs and by cutting the number of bus routes and extending bus rides up to 90 minutes each way. It is expected that if consolidation were forced on the district, schools would be closed and bus rides would be extended by at least 20 miles. Transportation funding is provided on a standard rate across the state regardless of actual costs to the district.

Deer-Mount Judea is Arkansas’ most sparsely-populated district. As such, it receives the highest level of “Special Needs Isolated Funding” provided by the state. The legislature has acknowledged that districts such as Deer-Mount Judea need additional funding for transportation and programming, but, as the suit describes, Arkansas has never rationally calculated an adequate amount for very remote or isolated rural places. The suit also asks for additional funding to help small rural and isolated districts attract and retain teachers.

The plaintiff district points out that Act 57 requires the legislature to assess and evaluate the amount of state funding needed to provide a constitutionally adequate education and that Act 108 requires the state to set aside education funding before other budget decisions are made. The suit alleges that the state has followed neither law in making funding allocations to districts.

In its lawsuit, the district references the Fourche Valley case (see June RSFN, here: www.ruraledu.org/articles.php?id=2498) in which the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the school closure but did not establish a bus-ride limit or address whether excessive transportation time would deny students an equal opportunity to receive an adequate education.

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Read more from the December 2010 Rural Policy Matters.