Three school districts in Kansas City area file lawsuit over ed

Saturday, August 16, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Three Kansas City area school districts sued the state Friday, claiming Gov. Bob Holden violated the Missouri Constitution by withholding $190 million that had been appropriated for public schools this year.

The Fort Osage, Lee's Summit and Liberty districts are asking a Cole County judge to reverse the governor's action and order the money to be distributed to schools. If that doesn't happen, "the quality of public education will be severely diminished," the lawsuit contends.

At issue are cuts announced by Holden when the state fiscal year began in July. The Democratic governor contends the $19.1 billion state budget passed by the Republican-led legislature was underfunded, forcing him to make immediate cuts to education and other government services.

The superintendent of the Liberty School District said he agrees with Holden's assertion, adding that Holden "has proved his commitment to education."

"The lawsuit we filed today clearly rests on the shoulders of the members of the General Assembly," even though it must name Holden as a defendant, said Liberty superintendent Scott Taveau.

The school funding cuts "tear at the heart of the community," added Lee's Summit superintendent Tony Stansberry. "We believe we are forced to address this funding crisis in the court system."

Taveau and Stansberry said their districts lost about $3 million each as result of the withholdings.

'Firm legal ground'

Holden asserted that he was "on firm legal ground" in making the spending cuts but had done so regretfully. He again blamed the legislature and renewed a pledge to call lawmakers back for a September special session to consider ways to raise more money for education.

"Because of the legislature's recklessness, the severely limited resources of the state will be used for litigation rather than educating our children," Holden said in a statement.

Some Republicans have argued that Holden should take responsibility for the latest cuts because the legislature's $4.55 billion budget for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during the coming school is almost identical to what the department received last year.

Sen. Charlie Shields, who is heading a special legislative committee that will look at school funding, said Friday that Holden was motivated more by politics than economics.

"He didn't get his way in special session and his only way to lash back at Republicans was to do it with withholdings and make us the fall guys," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "I'm not basing the work of the committee and the timetable of the committee on lawsuits."

The lawsuit cites a constitutional provision stating that "the governor shall not reduce any appropriation for free public schools." That section, however, is under the heading of the governor's authority to use line-item vetoes on budget bills.

Holden's office is likely to point to the following section of the constitution, which gives him power to reduce expenditures below their appropriations "whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based."

The lawsuit also cites a constitutional provision stating that public school appropriations shall be paid at least annually.

Besides Holden, the suit also names as defendants Treasurer Nancy Farmer, Office of Administration commissioner Jackie White, budget director Linda Luebbering, education commissioner Kent King, the state Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The lawsuit was assigned to Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan.

In 1991, several school districts filed a similar lawsuit alleging Gov. John Ashcroft violated the constitution by withholding money appropriated for public schools. But the Missouri Supreme Court never addressed the constitutional issue, ruling instead that the withholding was not an overall reduction for public schools because it was offset by federally mandated spending on school desegregation efforts in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

Michael Delaney, a Kansas City attorney representing the school districts in the latest lawsuit, said school appropriations are "off limits" for gubernatorial withholdings and he expects the Missouri Supreme Court to "harmonize those two provisions" in the constitution.

Brent Ghan, education policy director for the Missouri School Boards Association, said the organization has not taken a position on the lawsuit but added "it is an issue that a lot of school districts across the state are wondering about, and it is an issue that we need an answer on."

A separate group of school districts is expected to file another lawsuit later this year, challenging the overall equity and adequacy of state aid to public schools. So far, 147 school districts organized as the Committee on Education Equality have agreed to join the lawsuit.

In 1990, education groups also claimed that the school aid distribution method was unfair. A Cole County judge agreed and, in 1993, the legislature enacted the current funding formula.

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