Poor school districts file new disparity suit

Associated Press

RICHMOND A group of poor school districts filed a lawsuit Friday contending that Virginia's method of funding schools is unconstitutional because it denies equal opportunity to all students.

It was the second time the coalition of rural and inner-city schools has taken the state to court. A lawsuit filed in November was abandoned after legislators promised to come up with more school money.

"We have worked with them and tried to work with them consistently," said Kenneth Walker, coalition chairman and superintendent of Halifax County and South Boston schools. "We can't afford to keep waiting and let the children of Virginia do without an equal-educational opportunity."

State Secretary of Education James Dyke said the lawsuit would effectively halt the state's efforts to ease disparity.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed that they decided to go this route," Dyke said.

Gov. Douglas Wilder said he was "surprised at the willingness of these localities to spend scarce taxpayer dollars on lawyers and consultants, rather than the education of the children."

He said the state would aggressively defend itself against the suit.

While the first lawsuit named 31 school boards as plaintiffs, the latest lawsuit names seven school boards and 11 students. The lawsuit filed in Richmond Circuit Court states that 24 other school divisions in the coalition are backing the litigation.

The school board plaintiffs are Buchanan, Halifax, Pulaski and Russell counties and Petersburg, Radford and South Boston;

Walker said all 31 school districts are paying the legal costs and other districts may join the effort. Lunenburg County dropped out of the coalition last month because it thought the lawsuit would fail.

The assembly boosted school funding by $74 million to help students at risk of failing, students speak English as a second language, building maintenance and school divisions that are losing enrollment.

But the coalition voted to refile the lawsuit, saying as much as $800 million would be needed to solve disparities.

Virginia funnels more state money to poor localities, but tax support in wealthy school divisions more than makes up the difference. For example, Page County spends the least per pupil a year-$3,700-while Arlington County spends the most-$8,371.