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Barred From Intervening In Funding Case, Districts Weigh Options

LITTLE ROCK — An attorney for the Fort Smith, Van Buren, Greenwood and Alma school districts said Wednesday the districts are considering whether to appeal a judge’s ruling that they cannot intervene in a lawsuit over school funding.

“We have several options. One is do nothing, one is appeal, or one is to start another suit,” said Mitch Llewellyn, attorney for the districts in Sebastian and Crawford counties.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Tuesday denied the districts’ motion to intervene in a lawsuit by the Deer-Mount Judea School District that alleges the state is not adequately funding the 359-student district in Newton County.

Llewellyn had argued that his clients should be allowed to intervene because the case appears to have the potential to reopen the long-running Lake View school funding suit, which was resolved in 2007 with a state Supreme Court ruling that the state was adequately and equitably funding public schools.

“They wanted to intervene because they thought it could create real economic damage to them if there was some meddling with the (school funding formula) after all the many years we’ve been using that,” he said. “We kind of like the structure of it.”

The Deer-Mount Judea district alleges in its suit that as a small, isolated district it does not receive a fair share of state funding under the current formula. Llewellyn said the larger districts he represents were seeking to ensure that the judge took their interests into account as well.

According to the state Department of Education, the Fort Smith district’s enrollment is 14,313, Van Buren’s is 5,862, Greenwood’s is 3,596 and Alma’s is 3,278.

Clay Fendley, attorney for the Deer-Mount Judea district, and Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson asked Piazza on Tuesday to deny the motion to intervene, arguing that it was not filed in a timely manner, that there was no reason to admit other parties to the single-plaintiff case and that the interests of the districts seeking to intervene were already represented.

Fendley said Wednesday the districts that sought to intervene agreed with the plaintiffs on some issues and with the state on others.

“Where they agree with us that the system’s unconstitutional, we adequately represent their interests, and where they agree with the state that the system is constitutional, the state adequately represents their interests, so their interests in the case are already adequately represented in the case by the existing parties,” he said.

A hearing on a motion by the state to dismiss the suit is scheduled for July 2, and if the motion is denied, the case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 10. Fendley said that if the Sebastian and Crawford county districts appeal Tuesday’s ruling, however, “that would put a hold on the case while that appeal is pending.”

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