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Crawford: Court ruling could impact state school funding
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In a small courtroom tucked high inside the Fulton County courthouse, a trial will be held in October before a retired judge who will hear the arguments, sift through the evidence, and eventually issue a verdict (no jury is involved in this case).

The name of Judge Elizabeth E. Long is unknown to probably 99.9 percent of the people residing in Georgia, but her ruling in this case could have a momentous impact on the kids who attend our public schools and the taxpayers who put up the money to educate them.

She will be presiding over a lawsuit filed four years ago by a group of school systems, mostly from rural counties, who feel that the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient funds for its public schools to offer an "adequate" education.

The entire case hinges on the meaning of that word "adequate." If Judge Long decides that the education our children receive is not adequate, then she has the authority to order the governor and the General Assembly to start putting more money in the state budget for schools, a sum that could reach $1.5 billion a year.

This is not exactly the best time to be ordering Georgia's political leadership to spend more money. The economic slowdown has put the state in a financial hole that by some estimates will result in a $2 billion revenue shortfall this fiscal year. Would any judge have the courage to order the state to add to that deficit by allocating more tax dollars to the schools?

This judge would. When she turned down the final attempt by the state's attorneys to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Long wrote: "This Court is mindful of the expense involved in a trial of this magnitude, as well as the uncomfortable position of the judge in such a bench trial. But it is not the role of the Court to tailor its ruling to avoid awkward situations or to let expediency and cost savings dictate legal outcomes, especially on issues of such importance."

The last time a lawsuit came this close to overturning the way Georgia pays for public education was back in the early 1980s when the Whitfield County school board sued the state Department of Education and the superintendent at the time, Charles McDaniel.

That lawsuit was dismissed by the courts in 1981, but a few years later Gov. Joe Frank Harris persuaded the General Assembly to adopt the QBE formulas by which the state still determines how much money goes to the various local school boards. (An irony of that earlier lawsuit: the Whitfield County school board chairman was a physician named Don Thomas who is now a member of the Georgia Senate and may have to make some tough budget decisions because of the current lawsuit.)

Gov. Sonny Perdue had the chance to clear up this issue in 2004 when he appointed a special commission to review those outdated QBE formulas and recommend a better way of paying for education.

That commission, however, has failed to produce a single funding recommendation after more than four years of meetings. During that same period, Perdue and the legislature have cut state funding to local school systems by an amount that now totals about $1.5 billion.

Those budget reductions have forced dozens of school boards to raise property taxes to keep their systems afloat and minimize teacher layoffs, in effect passing on the financial burden from the state treasury to local property owners because Perdue did not want to grapple with the sensitive political issue.

Those years of funding cuts could be the chickens that come home to roost this fall for Georgia's political leadership. Long has signaled that she is ready to decide whether our politicians are living up to the oaths they took to uphold the Georgia constitution and its requirement to provide an adequate public education.

The trial is set to begin Oct. 21 and should last for several weeks. Long probably won't issue a decision until sometime in January, at just about the time when lawmakers come to Atlanta to convene the General Assembly.

The judge may throw a giant political bomb squarely into the middle of the next legislative session - and won't that be fun?

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.

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