Columns » John Brummett

Getting pups back on leashes

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Most people around the state Capitol seem so much more casual about this second phase of court-ordered school reform, the improvement and equalization of facilities. You will recall that the first phase, just last year, entailed the pressure-packed design of a school funding formula and the enactment of new taxes. The point was to try to make instructional opportunities better for all students and especially enhanced for youths performing below average because of economic disadvantage. The facilities phase was put off for the logical reason that an inventory of buildings needed to take place first. Here are four reasons for the lack of any sense of duress or urgency this time: 1. The Supreme Court kept the school reform case active during the first phase, but closed the case after determining first-phase reforms to be good enough. Litigation alleging foot-dragging will have to be filed anew. Legislators are pups off the judicial leash, darting about to sniff other things. They’re kids left home alone, pondering whether to play with matches. 2. That inventory of facilities came in and appeared over-the-top. The consultants wanted to err on the side of thoroughness. They applied strict adherence to current codes to every structure they examined. Everyone has a story about a perfectly fine roof called substandard, a barn for which air conditioning was recommended or a hardware problem on a door for which the consultants recommended not only new hardware, but a whole new door. Hardly anyone takes seriously the price tag — $2 billion; $4 million, you name it. But state Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, one of maybe a half-dozen legislators seeking to find a responsible solution, has a warning: Yes, there are impracticalities in the report, but even if you remove all of them, there remains a vast array of court-mandated legitimate needs amounting to a still-daunting dollar figure. 3. The governor is absent without leave. He mentions the facilities issue almost with a spit. He thinks it’s time we emphasized higher education and roads. He’s still rightly irritated about the failure of his bold and principled consolidation proposal during the first phase. He seems to think we’re getting ready to fix buildings that ought to be boarded up, which, actually, is true. He seems to want to do the bare minimum, which is spend $87 million or so to tend to the things identified in the report as dangerous, and do that with cash on hand in the General Improvement Fund. That would have the added advantage of keeping legislators from raiding that fund as usual for their petty local aggrandizement. After that, the problem isn’t his. He’ll be gone from the Governor’s Mansion, thanks to term limits. 4. Even responsible legislators say this facilities phase must be handled incrementally. They say we couldn’t possibly do everything at once, either physically or fiscally. One of Argue’s ideas, still percolating, is to refer to the voters a proposed constitutional amendment by which they’d be asked to establish a minimum local millage for debt service for facilities improvement. Nothing could be done on that until after the 2006 election, anyway. These reasons are not all bad. They’re dangerous only as a blueprint for halfhearted action. Unleashed puppies can get lost. Children left home alone to play with matches can start fires. It never pays to defy judges. It costs even more to ignore the needs of children who don’t receive adequate and equal educational opportunity, in part because of substandard and unequal facilities. A big part of school remains the facility itself, just as a big part of a job is the office or plant itself. We don’t need $4 billion or even $2 billion. But we need to get back on a short leash and do our duty.

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