Friday, December 17, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – Every school district in Arkansas has a financial interest in the ongoing Pulaski County desegregation case, which has been litigated in federal court for decades and for which there is no apparent end.

A new wrinkle in the case came to the surface last week, when a legislative audit of the Pulaski County Special School District revealed that last year the district failed to spend more than $4 million in desegregation funding provided by the state.

The state paid $20.5 million last year to the Pulaski County district, under federal court orders, but the district spent only $16.2 million of the amount on desegregation efforts. The same legislative audit uncovered numerous findings of unwise spending and questionable practices, prompting one senator to call it the worst mess he had ever seen.

School districts in Arkansas receive the majority of their funding from the state, but the three districts in Pulaski County receive additional amounts under a settlement of the desegregation case approved in 1989.

The state agreed to the settlement because federal courts had ruled that past state actions contributed to the segregation of Pulaski County schools. Some of those state actions go back to the 1957 Central High School crisis.

The Pulaski County School District does not include most of Little Rock or North Little Rock, although it does take in some of the most expensive and recently developed outer suburbs in west Little Rock.

Viewed on a map the Pulaski County district looks like a doughnut with a bite taken out of it. It encircles the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts. The Pulaski County district takes in suburban areas around the capital city, such as Jacksonville, Maumelle, Sherwood and unincorporated parts of the county.

The Pulaski County district is 48 percent white and 44 percent black. Hispanics and Asians account for the rest of the student population.

Legislative auditors recommended changes to correct the faulty accounting procedures they uncovered, using letters of the alphabet. The list of needed changes went all the way to "Z."

The audit findings were forwarded to the local prosecuting attorney and to the state Education Department. The director of the Education Department told legislators that officials would determine whether Pulaski County should be placed on the state's list of schools in fiscal distress.

New Rules for Gas Exploration

The state Oil and Gas Commission has written a new regulation affecting natural gas drilling in the Fayetteville Shale play, which extends in a wide band across much of north central Arkansas. The rule requires exploration companies to disclose the types of liquids they will use in a process call hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The process is the reason so many new gas wells have been drilled in the Fayetteville Shale play, adding about $5.5 billion to the state's economy. Traditional methods of producing gas were not cost effective at current prices.

The new rule is a response to concerns about the effect of fracking on nearby water wells. Landowners will get a more clear idea of the chemicals that are being put underground near their water wells, so they will know what to test for to make sure their water is safe.

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