Supreme Court Leaves Open School Funding Claims

With so much attention focused on last week’s teacher insurance special session, an important case handed down last Thursday from the Arkansas Supreme Court was all but overlooked. In Deer-Mt. Judea School Dist. v. Kimbrell, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s ruling to dismiss some of the Deer-Mt. Judea School District’s claims against the State regarding inadequate school funding, thus leaving open the possibility that at least some parts of the school funding system in Arkansas could be once again declared unconstitutional.

This case has a long and complex history, and is actually two cases, both filed by the Deer-Mt. Judea School District, that have been consolidated into one. I’m only discussing one aspect of the case that deals directly with the adequacy of school funding. In 2010, the Deer-Mt. Judea School District, a tiny school district in rural Newton County that operates two separate K-12 campuses, filed a complaint in Pulaski County Circuit Court arguing, among other things, that the State has failed to take the appropriate actions to maintain an adequate school funding system. Specifically, the school district asserted seven (7) different ways in which the State has failed to maintain an adequate education system. The State responded by filing a motion to dismiss, arguing that the school district’s claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata. For those of you who are not lawyers, the doctrine of res judicata bars claims that were, or could have been, litigated and resolved in a previous lawsuit involving the same events and the same parties. In simple terms, res judicata prevents parties from relitigating the same case over and over in an effort to reach a different result. The State argued, in this case, that res judicata applied to bar the school district’s claims, because those claims either were, or could have been, asserted in the Lake View School District case. Because the Lake View School District¬†case was a class action consisting of all school districts, parents, students, taxpayers, etc., every school district was a party to the case, and is thus bound by its judgment.

The Pulaski County Circuit Court dismissed all seven of Deer-Mt. Judea’s claims as barred by res judicata, and the school district appealed, arguing, among other things, that the acts complained of occurred after the Supreme Court’s 2007 final ruling in the Lake View case. ¬†Below are the district’s claims and how the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on each:

  1. The district claimed that the 2008 and 2010 adequacy reports of the General Assembly failed to comply with state law. The Court reversed the dismissal of this claim, finding that this occurred after the 2007 Lake View ruling.
  2. The district claimed that the cost-of-living adjustments in state funding given to school districts by the State in 2009 and 2011 were based on funds available, and not the actual need of the districts. Again, because this occurred after the 2007 ruling, the Court reversed the dismissal of this claim.
  3. The district claimed that there was no rational basis in how the General Assembly has chosen to fund the transportation of students. Transportation for rural districts, such as Deer-Mt. Judea, is a big expense. The Court against reversed the dismissal of this claim because it occurred after the 2007 ruling.
  4. The district claimed that facility funding under the State’s Facilities Partnership Program was inadequate and inequitable. Again, the Court reversed the dismissal of this claim, finding that it would have been impossible to bring this claim prior to the 2007 ruling because the program was established after the ruling.
  5. The district claimed that funding for small, isolated school is unconstitutional because it is not rationally related to the needs of those schools. The Court affirmed the dismissal of this claim, finding that it could have been brought during the Lake View litigation.
  6. The district claimed that National School Lunch Act (NSLA) funding is not used appropriately. Again, the Court found this claim could have been litigated in Lake View, and affirmed its dismissal.
  7. Finally, the district claimed that the State has not implemented an appropriate teacher professional development and salary system. The Court again found that this could have been litigated in Lake View, so the claim was properly dismissed.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s rulings, the first four claims listed above will be remanded to the circuit court to rule on the merits of each claim, thus leaving open the possibility that at least some aspects of the school funding system could be declared unconstitutional once again. The Supreme Court’s opinion signals its willingness to hold the General Assembly accountable for continually researching, studying, monitoring, and tweaking the school funding system as necessary to maintain an equitable and adequate education for all students.

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