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story.lead_photo.caption House Education Chairman Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, is shown in this file photo.

State lawmakers on Tuesday again failed to hire an outside consultant to review Arkansas' public school funding model because members disagreed over which group should be hired.

Education groups and lawmakers from both parties have been calling for an outside study of education funding for at least the past two years, so many were frustrated after Tuesday morning's three-hour meeting.

The House Education Committee voted to hire Denver-based consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates without a vote to spare, but the proposal died in the Senate committee.

Only four members on the Senate Education Committee voted to hire the firm when five votes were needed. One senator who was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting said later that he would have cast the deciding vote to hire the Colorado group had he been there.

The joint education committee finds itself in limbo: it could try a third vote or continue without an independent look at how state education dollars are spent.

House Education Chairman Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said after the meeting that the committees wouldn't attempt to hire a consultant again until the next budget cycle in 2021. But in a phone interview later Tuesday, he said he was open to holding another vote on the consulting contracts again this year "if the votes are there."

Cozart has been one of the more vocal lawmakers calling for an outside group to examine the way the General Assembly sets public school funding.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "I thought we would at least come up with a solution today. It's for the kids; it's not for us. The people [on the committee] do not want to come together. They'd rather fight their own battles, push for their own agendas, I guess."

Public education accounts for the largest single category of state spending in Arkansas -- $2.25 billion of this year's $5.75 billion general revenue budget.

Public school funding levels are reviewed every two years by the House and Senate education committees, which make funding recommendations to the governor and General Assembly. The biennial reviews typically include small funding tweaks and cost-of-living adjustments; the committees' recommendations are typically accepted.

Arkansas school funding hasn't received an in-depth, outside review since two college professors were hired to help develop a new funding formula in 2003 after a landmark court decision that deemed the state's education funding model unconstitutional.

There has been near-unanimous agreement among Education Committee members that gaps have developed in the formula over the past 16 years, so the committee this year decided to solicit bids from consulting groups to conduct a deeper review of the way Arkansas sets education spending levels.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates submitted a bid for the contract at $659,580. Missouri-based Shuls and Associates said it could do the work for $499,236.

Both companies proposed meetings with educators across the state, reviewing research, studying successful schools and conducting school district surveys to complete their studies, which would be due in November 2020.

But different lawmakers saw different strengths and weaknesses in each group.

Reps. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, and Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, both spoke favorably about Shuls and Associates, noting that the group was qualified, cheaper and planned to partner with staff from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Office for Education Policy.

"I think the most important thing is they have Arkansas-specific and regional-specific experience," Lowery said.

Conversely, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said they preferred Augenblick, Palaich and Associates because of its extensive experience working with state and local governments on school finance issues.

The firm has worked in all 50 states over the past 36 years, including conducting education adequacy studies in more than 20 states.

Several members said they had concerns about Shuls and Associates because the company was formed just days before the committee issued a request for proposals for the contract. James Shuls, the Missouri professor who heads the group, said he formed the company for the purpose of applying for the Arkansas contract.

Shuls and members of his team have extensive experience looking at state-level education funding, but the new firm has not done a study of this scale on behalf of a state government.

"[Shuls and Associates] has no experience whatsoever," Chesterfield said. "And I always wax concern about people developing themselves for a specific purpose at a particular time."

The House committee in a split voice vote soundly defeated Lowery's motion to enter a contract with Shuls and Associates.

The House committee, needing 11 votes, passed Sen. Joyce Elliott's motion to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates with just that many votes.

The motion fell short by one vote in the Senate committee. However, Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, were absent from the meeting.

Cheatham, who was attending an event at Monticello High School with U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., during the committee meeting, said in a Tuesday phone interview that he would have voted to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, giving the committee the required number of votes.

Hendren, who was out of state on a business trip, said he wasn't sure how he would have voted because he had several questions for the consultants.

Cozart said that the Senate committee may explore expunging Tuesday's vote, which would clear the way to vote again on hiring the Denver consultants when Cheatham can attend.

Senate Education Committee chairwoman Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, agreed that expunging the vote was a possibility, but she noted that the process has already dragged.

"I was disappointed but not surprised," English said of Tuesday's votes. "There are folks that just don't want to look at adequacy."

The committee early this year issued an initial request for proposals for a broader adequacy study, but Augenblick, Palaich and Associates was the only bidder. The committee denied that bid because of concerns about the $943,605 cost and the scope of the firm's proposed study.

The committees on Tuesday also rebuffed a motion intended to kill a contract with either of the two consulting groups. Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, proposed doing an in-house study using personnel from the Bureau of Legislative Research. He said that the committee could hold meetings across the state to hear from stakeholders.

"Let's save the time, let's save the money, and let's honestly get to work as a committee," Hodges said. "Because if we can't come together and find a solution anyway, we're not going to find it by paying $500,000 for a consultant to do it for us."

Cozart said afterward that he didn't believe the committees could do such a study.

"Everybody thinks we can do this in-house, but they're not willing to come in here," he said. "That's the longest anybody has sat in the committee meeting in a long time. They did stay today, and I'm tickled to death about that. But most of them don't show up to a regular committee meeting. Are they willing to come and stay one day a week to do a new adequacy study and go travel to those schools and get that research?"

Cozart said it's too late anyway to attempt that process this cycle because the next adequacy report is due in fall 2020.

Educator and administrator groups were also disappointed after Tuesday's meetings. They've been calling for such a study for years.

Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming said the teacher group was excited when the Legislature announced plans to hire an outside consultant to review the state's funding system that is "falling short."

"We remain hopeful that the Legislature will hire an honest broker who will work in good faith to ensure Arkansas students receive the educational opportunity they deserve," she said. "Our kids can't wait."

Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said that school administrators were also disappointed.

"We're going to need a new study of adequacy at some point," he said. "Things have changed since 2003."

Metro on 10/09/2019

Print Headline: Education-fund study lacks votes

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