Scott City, others prepare for lawsuit

Friday, May 16, 2003

A chance to increase much-needed funding through a lawsuit against the state has divided Southeast Missouri school districts.

All local school officials agree that additional funding is imperative, but reluctance to seek a remedy through the courts is keeping some districts from joining a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's current funding method. It's a complicated math equation known as the foundation formula.

"Something has to happen with the foundation formula, that much is certain," said Cape Girardeau superintendent Mark Bowles. "But I would like to consider legal action as a last resort, and I'm not sure we're at that point yet."

Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Thursday they have no position on the lawsuit at this time.

The result of a 1993 lawsuit, the foundation formula takes into account factors such as local property tax rates and student enrollment to distribute money evenly between poor and wealthy districts.

Some educators claim the current method is shortchanging districts because in recent years the formula hasn't been fully funded due to state budget cuts. State legislators May 9 passed a budget for the 2004 fiscal year cutting around $163 million next year from public education.

Already this year, the Scott City, Chaffee and Kelly school boards voted to join in the lawsuit effort at initial fees between $100 and $200. Additional costs will be added on a per-pupil basis.

Just this week, Poplar Bluff and Sikeston school districts voted to join the coalition of schools -- called the Committee for Education Equality -- planning to sue for equitable funding.

"We can no longer survive on what we do locally," said Diann Bradshaw, Scott City superintendent. "I don't think it's right that just because we're in a rural area our students do not receive the same funds as students in urban areas."

"There are schools in Missouri getting $13,000 per student. I'd be ecstatic with just the state average," Bradshaw said.

The average per-pupil expenditure, or the amount of money schools get per student from the state, is $6,991 in Missouri. Scott City's per-pupil expenditure is $5,484, one of the lowest in the state.

Getting bigger share

Chaffee superintendent Dr. Arnold Bell echoed the concerns of Bradshaw and officials from more than 50 of Missouri's 524 school districts that have joined the Committee for Education Equality.

"When a state pays $30,000 a year to house a prisoner and just $5,400 to educate a child, something's not right," Bell said.

Bell is familiar with lawsuits seeking more funding through his involvement in a similar case 10 years ago.

As superintendent in the Caruthersville School District, Bell testified in the 1993 lawsuit that sparked the creation of Senate Bill 380, which produced the current funding method known as the foundation formula.

"It's a shame we have to do this, but I think it's necessary," Bell said.

The lawsuit is still in the organizational stages as the committee seeks more members from throughout the state, but organizers say they expect action before the end of the year. Jefferson City lawyer Alex Bartlett, who represented schools in the 1993 case, has consulted with district officials on the possibility of a new lawsuit.

The committee currently has plans to hire a nationally known statistician to perform an equity study of the funding system. The study is expected to be completed in late summer, and the committee's board of directors will then make a decision about how to proceed.

With the seventh lowest per-pupil funding rate in the state because of the local property values, Jackson school officials agree that adjustments need to be made. However, they're not jumping on the bandwagon just yet.

"I'm not sure what the best approach is to solving the major problem of financing education right now," said superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson. "I don't know that it's the foundation. Most of the problem is lack of revenue. And whether it's decided by the court or a legislative body, it's going to take more funding."

Meadow Heights superintendent Duane Schindler said one reason he doesn't recommend participating in the lawsuit is the potential cost involved.

While it only costs between $100 and $200 to join, during the similar 1993 lawsuit, districts paid as much as $5,000.

"The cost of joining isn't high, but money is tight and I hate to spend it on something when nothing may ever come of it," Schindler said.

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