Justices question school funding system in hearing

By Nomaan Merchant
Associated Press

PIERRE � The South Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a high-stakes challenge to the state's system for funding schools, as lawmakers consider severe school aid cuts to balance the budget.

A group of parents has sued the state, arguing that rural schools don't get enough state aid to provide an adequate education. A judge ruled in 2009 in favor of the state, which says that courts cannot force the legislature to spend money or change education policy.

On Tuesday, an attorney for the parents said rural schools are penalized because they have fewer students than districts in Sioux Falls. The state currently provides for a base amount of $4,804 per student, with small schools getting more for each student.

"This is the crisis point, in rural South Dakota, especially," said Ronald A. Parsons Jr., the attorney. "We can't just herd everyone into certain counties."

Parsons asked the court's five justices to declare the state funding system unconstitutional and then "instruct the legislature to come up with its own remedy." He didn't suggest how much more money rural districts needed.

Meanwhile, a state attorney said the legislature had done its duty by creating a system for all students to get an adequate education.

"There are students who are not taking advantage of that," said Assistant Attorney General Diane Best. "There isn't a system that can guarantee that a student will be motivated to come to school."

The hearing took place on the same day as the start of this year's legislative session. Before leaving office last week, former Gov. Mike Rounds proposed a 5 percent cut in state aid to schools, or about $240 per student. Gov. Dennis Daugaard stressed frugality in Saturday's inaugural address and said he would consider cuts to every state program.

"I don't think we can say that anything's off the table," Daugaard said afterward.

Several justices said they were hesitant to declare the school funding system unconstitutional and force the legislature to make changes without suggesting an alternative. "The legislature needs to have more direction that that," Justice Judith Meierhenry said.

But Parsons demurred. "The Court obviously will never be a 'super' school board," Parsons said, adding that more money might help rural districts hire better teachers and improve classes.

Lawyers for the parents � who are backed by about 100 of the state's 161 school districts � have said that some schools cannot afford to offer advanced math courses and other services that students need. Some districts have trouble hiring teachers because they offer lower salaries, and others cannot afford to fix buildings or build new schools. The state disputes that view, saying districts get enough money to provide an adequate education.

Meierhenry was skeptical of Parsons' argument. "It's more than just salaries," said Meierhenry, a Sioux Falls resident. "No one wants to live there."

But members of the court also suggested they were troubled by the problems facing rural schools. Chief Justice David Gilbertson said the "ultimate duty" of upholding the state constitution � which calls for a "general and uniform system of public schools" � belonged to the court.

"If we don't have jurisdiction to solve this case, who does?" Gilbertson asked Best.

"The legislature," she replied. "They're elected officials, and they haven't abrogated that authority yet."

Meierhenry and Justice Steven Zinter asked Best about statistics that suggest many rural students don't meet state or national standards. "Wouldn't 50 percent kind of take your breath away a little bit?" Meierhenry said. "The statistics speak for themselves."

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