Judge shoots down proration

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 23, 2001

Staff Writer

Feb. 22, 2001 10 PM

A Montgomery Circuit Court judge has had her say and the Alabama Legislature now has five days to come up with an answer.

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On Thursday, Circuit Judge Tracey McCooey gave Gov. Don Siegelman and legislators until 5 p.m., Feb. 27 to fix the state’s education budget without cutting funds to kindergarten through 12th grade.

McCooey’s decision came after hearing six hours of testimony last week in the case filed by the Alabama Association of School Boards with the Pike County and Mobile County boards of education also listed as defendants.

Citing past court decisions, McCooey said it was unconstitutional to cut funding for K-12 because it is an essential function of state government.

McCooey said allowing proration would violate children’s to receive an "equitable and adequate education" and cuts would cause "irreversible damage" to schools across the state.

She said K-12 is mandated by the Constitution, but higher education is not.

"We are obviously pleased," said Susan Salter, director of public relations for the AASB. "We think she (McCooey) sent a strong message."

Salter said educators "have to have a solution" because the monthly checks go out on Feb. 28. That is why McCooey set Feb. 27 as a deadline for state leaders.

John Key, superintendent of the Pike County Schools, said he "feels she (McCooey) is trying to protect K-12."

Although he does not want "anything to happen to" institutions of higher education his "first concern is our children."

The AASB sued Siegelman after he ordered $266 million in across-the-board cuts in the education budget because of a drop in the economy.

In reaction to the ruling, Siegelman issued a proclamation calling for a special session on the education budget. The proclamation ordered the Legislature to "amend the laws relating to proration" and establish an emergency fund for K-12.

"What we’ve done in Alabama is develop something we can’t afford," Key said, adding "The legislature doesn’t want to deal with it."

State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, said legislators will begin debating the issue today and will continue on Saturday and Monday in order to meet the judge’s deadline. Debate will begin after the Education Committee, which will meet today, has something to present.

"It’s unfortunate we got into these positions," Boothe said.

When contacted in Montgomery Thursday afternoon, Boothe could not comment on the legislation being presented because he had not yet received his copies of the bills.

Now, he said the Legislature will have to concentrate on these problems and "correct the situation the best we can with what we have."

As legislators begin their work, so do those in higher education who fear for their financial lives.

Like most Alabama college and university presidents, Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy State University, fears Thursday’s judgment will mean cuts in higher education.

"That shifts the burden entirely on higher education," he said of McCooey’s order. "The judge put a burden on everyone."

The 6.2 percent proration initially declared by the governor could become 18 percent for institutions of higher learning, the chancellor said, adding that means the loss of "hundreds of jobs" and increases of tuition reaching 40 percent.

"The burden is too great," Hawkins said. "We’re going to be stripped to the bare bones."

Hawkins said legislators need to come up with "a temporary solution," such as a one-cent sales tax increase. That, he said, "would get us through the crisis" by generating $330 million per year.

Hawkins said he believes the governor is looking for a solution.

"I think we’ll see a lot of scrambling for answers in the next few days," Hawkins said.

Each college and university is in the process of putting together what Hawkins called a "pain list."

And, cuts of 6.2 percent were going to be painful enough, Hawkins said, but 18 percent could cause irreversible damage.

"It’s hard to build an institution, but it’s very easy to destroy it," Hawkins said.