HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The four announced candidates for Arkansas governor split along party lines Tuesday on whether the state Supreme Court ruled correctly when it said local school districts shouldn't have to give the state any leftover money after meeting the state's per-pupil spending targets.
Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, the only Democratic candidate in the race, said he believes the ruling could undermine funding plans legislators put in place to address a lawsuit brought by the now-defunct Lake View School District. Justices ended that case after 15 years — determining that the Legislature had established ways to fund evenly and adequately.
"I think the Supreme Court got it wrong," Ross said at a meeting of the Arkansas Public Schools Resource Center. He said after the forum that he had met a teacher who moved from prosperous northwest Arkansas to southeast Arkansas and told him there is a vast difference between the regions in quality of school facilities.
Justices ruled in 2012 that state education officials could not lay claim to excess money from two school districts — Eureka Springs and Fountain Lake — after their local tax collections exceeded what was necessary to meet state-set spending totals.
Eureka Springs raised $825,000 more while Fountain Lake took in $1.4 million more under the state's minimum property tax. Voters in 1996 directed all districts to levy no less than 25 mills of property tax for maintenance and operation of schools. Districts are allowed to levy more than 25 mills. A mill produces $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Last month, a legislative committee shot down a bill that would have let the state retain the excess revenue, and GOP candidate Debra Hobbs, a state representative from Rogers, said her vote helped kill the bill that would have nullified the Supreme Court ruling.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe in 2006, said he supports the court's decision.
"I don't think the legislative grab ... is appropriate," Hutchinson said.
Businessman Curtis Coleman, a Republican, said districts should have the right to keep excess revenue.
"I have a fundamental problem with the state capping local property tax ... and giving it back with strings attached," Coleman said.
Coleman said Tuesday that he wants the state to abandon a 350-student minimum threshold for a school district to avoid being consolidated with another district. Legislators established the minimum a decade ago, saying districts with fewer than 350 pupils would be difficult to fund adequately and equitably.
Coleman cited the consolidation of the Weiner school district, which had high-performing schools but not enough students.
"I definitely want (the 350-student minimum) to be amended, if not completely repealed. For instance, when I say amended, I think a population number as a single measure of whether a school is allowed to continue or not is far inadequate and let's at least add a population threshold, financial distress, lack of academic performance," Coleman said after the session.
Hobbs said that districts that want to remain in existence without meeting the 350-student minimum should have to vow to not sue the state and claim they're not being adequately funded.
"The reason for that 350 is to make sure they are fiscally sound," Hobbs said.
Hutchinson didn't weigh in directly on whether 350-student minimum should be abandoned but said he believes there should be a deeper measure to determine the fate of a district.
"I've always said if a school is performing academically and they're financially sound, then the state should support that school in terms of their existence," Hutchinson said.
Ross said the 350-student minimum "has been in place for a number of years. I think it probably makes sense and is probably a good place to be."
But Ross also said schools should be judged on "quality rather than quantity."