Schools' funding lawsuit still on

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Saying the Missouri Legislature has failed to fix serious flaws in how the state funds public education, a group of school districts announced Tuesday that it won't back off its lawsuit asking a court to declare the system unconstitutional.

In the wake of the legislature's passage last month of a new formula for distributing state financial aid, the Committee for Educational Equality, which represents 257 districts, met Sunday in Columbia to decide whether to continue the litigation, which was filed in January 2004 and claims the current formula provides schools too little money that is unfairly distributed.

Tyler Laney, the group's chairman and superintendent of the Crane School District in southwest Missouri, said the vote to proceed was unanimous among those present. While giving the legislature credit for making an effort, Laney said the new formula does little to address the issues raised in the lawsuit.

"If an analogy of the old formula is one plus two equals three, the new formula is two plus one equals three," Laney said. "When it comes to providing fairness to each Missouri student regardless of where they live, the local wealth of the school they attend or the individual needs the child possesses, the numbers still don't add up."

The case is pending in Cole County Circuit Court. It isn't expected to proceed to trial until early next year.

In response to the announcement, three key Republican state senators said they will pursue a proposed constitutional amendment next year that would strip Missouri courts of jurisdiction to hear education funding lawsuits. The senators -- Senate Majority Floor Leader Charlie Shields of St. Joseph, education chairman Gary Nodler of Joplin and judiciary chairman Matt Bartle of Lee's Summit -- filed such a proposal this year, but the legislature took no action.

"School funding should rest in the hands of elected legislators and the governor and not in the hands of an unelected judiciary," Shields said. "For the state to have to spend money, which could be used on our children's education, to defend ourselves from a lawsuit that is also funded by the taxpayers is wrong."

If the proposed amendment clears the legislature next year, it would be subject to ratification by Missouri voters. Alex Bartlett, the Jefferson City attorney representing the Committee for Educational Equality, said even if the provision were adopted, he doubts it could affect cases already in existence.

Laney said the plaintiff group has spent $413,805 on the lawsuit to date. The group's member districts are providing the financial support. Bartlett said he is billing the group $200 an hour, well below his standard rate of $285 an hour. Bartlett also said he isn't charging for all his time spent on the case.

A representative of the second group involved in the lawsuit, the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, said last week that it will remain in the case to protect its interests so long as the Committee for Educational Equality continues it. The coalition is concerned solely with the funding adequacy issue and not the fairness of distribution. It represents around 70 school districts, including Cape Girardeau, Perry County and New Madrid.

Cape Girardeau School District superintendent Mark Bowles said the district will continue as a plaintiff.

"We really don't know the future of the funding of this formula, which is the main point of contention for most legislators," Bowles said.

East Prairie School District superintendent Scott Downing, the point man for the 49 Southeast Missouri districts that belong to the Committee for Educational Equality, said the new formula's call for boosting direct aid to local schools by $900 million over seven years falls short of providing districts the money they need.

"We just feel like it still is not an adequate amount of money to educate children," Downing said. "There are still a lot of things to be worked out in the new formula that the lawsuit hopefully will address."

Many superintendents say the funding increase called for by the new formula simply reflects normal growth in state education spending that would be expected even without changes in the system.

Gov. Matt Blunt, who has yet to sign the formula bill into law but intends to, slammed districts for continuing the litigation.

"Those included in the lawsuit want a massive tax increase instead of a responsible formula that ensures Missouri's schoolchildren get the education they deserve," Blunt said.

The case is Committee for Educational Equality, et al., v. State of Missouri, et al. The bill is SB 287.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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