Master's Report in on State Education

October 4, 2005 – Posted at 4:19 p.m. CDT
FORREST CITY, AR -- The Arkansas Supreme Court masters say legislators failed the education system. It's the latest volley in a 13-year court battle involving state funding for education.
 Two Supreme Court masters concluded Monday that state lawmakers reneged on a promise to make education the state's top spending issue for the state’s 450,000 public school students.
The report faulted legislators on almost every front...from failing to conduct an adequacy study to neglecting to raise minimum state aid. And additionally for allocating only $120 million dollars toward a ten year, $1.9 billion dollar overhaul of school building and equipment.
Dozens of school districts, including the Forrest City school district, filed suit against the state, claiming legislators failed to make public education the state's top priority.
In 2002, the state Supreme Court declared Arkansas’ school funding formula unconstitutional, saying the state didn’t spend enough money or distribute is evenly among public schools. Over the last two years, the state has consolidated school districts with fewer than 350 students in an effort to alleviate funding.
“The reason why we have gone through this, the bottom line is the children, especially the children in Eastern Arkansas, and the southern part of the state. Children who represent those districts have a high poverty area of the state,” said Forrest City Superintendent Lee Vent, “The entire effort is about the children.”
The Forrest City school district has been tightening their belts ever since Act 22-83 was passed. “As a result of that act being passed, many school districts found themselves lacking in funding for the upcoming school year. Our school district seemed to be the one that was hit the hardest,” said Vent.
Due to declining enrollment and less funding, the district closed three elementary schools last year and downsized their transportation fleet.
“In an effort to prioritize our funds that are available to us, we must make those hard hat decisions,” said Vent.
Superintendent Vent says he hopes the Supreme Court will not disregard the 83 page Masters Report. And he believes a ruling will come in the next few weeks.
“All the parties now need to come together for the benefit of the children and our state. We made some great strides in 2003, but we did go backward I felt in 2005,” said Vent, “And we need to continue making education a priority, not only our children deserve, but constitutionally required.”
In addition to concluding a lack of funding, the special masters also touched on the prospects of further school consolidation as a possible future course. They seemed to suggest Arkansas consider broader school consolidation rather than waiting for districts to go into fiscal or academic distress before possibly closing schools.