Originally created 10/13/03

School funding trial takes three-month break



MANNING, S.C. -- Attorneys for eight school districts who claim the state shortchanges their students are only about halfway through their case, after seven weeks of testimony in a trial that could change the way the state funds its schools.

"It's taken us a little longer than we had hoped," said Stephen Morrison, an attorney for the districts. It's important to let each school district have a chance to talk about its funding concerns, Morrison said.

"The evidence is coming in very logically and very well," he said. "It is showing the needs of at-risk students in the plaintiff districts are not being addressed."

The trial broke Friday, ending three days of testimony from Hampton 2 Superintendent Dennis Thompson, Jr. The trial is scheduled to resume in January.

Thompson testified that highly trained educators from the state Department of Education sent to the district to train teachers are not enough to make a difference in the district, where nearly three-fourths of students fail standardized tests.

Thompson said a lack of money hampers his district's ability to improve student performance. The district suffers from an annual teacher turnover rate of 25 percent, a situation worsened by poor working conditions and low pay, he said.

"If we are serious about affecting the children of Hampton County, then we just can't sit here and talk about this and not provide them with the resources they need," he said.

Attorneys for the state have argued that the state provides schools adequate funding, but districts do not spend the money wisely.

On Friday, state and plaintiff's attorneys sparred over how much money the district receives, how it compares with wealthier districts and how the district spends the money, prompting Judge Thomas Cooper Jr. to remind both sides of the trial's central issue.

"I'm not here to allocate funds (or) decide how money is spent," Cooper said. "I'm here to determine: Is the money being spent providing a minimally adequate education?" Cooper said.

Thompson is one of several school district officials to testify in the case, which has also seen testimony from Marion 7, Dillon 2 and Allendale officials. Officials from Orangeburg 3, Jasper, Florence 4 and Lee school districts have yet to take the stand.

The lawsuit began a decade ago when three dozen school districts sued the state. Cooper dismissed the lawsuit in 1993.

The state Supreme Court ruled on appeal that the state constitution requires legislators to provide each child a "minimally adequate education" and sent the case back to Cooper. Cooper's ruling with be reviewed by the high court.