Mo. school funding legal battle costs $2.6 million

Thursday, January 18, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The legal battle over Missouri's method of funding public schools already has cost taxpayers more than $2.6 million -- counting money spent both by school districts challenging the funding formula and the state defending it.

Two groups of school districts that sued the state and the attorney general's office provided estimates of their costs, largely for lawyers but also for expert witnesses and research, in response to a request from The Associated Press.

The lawsuit claims the state is not spending enough to provide students with an adequate education and doesn't distribute the money fairly.

The trial continued Thursday with testimony from the Willow Springs School District in southern Missouri.

Defenders of the state's system of school funding focused on how the Willow Springs students' academic performance is at about the state average, while its spending is far below.

"You must be doing something right with your money that other school districts aren't doing," said attorney Joshua Schindler, who represents several taxpayers allowed into the case on the state's behalf.

But former Superintendent Don Hamby said just because his students exceed the state average on test scores doesn't mean that average level should be the benchmark to obtain.

"I want my child to have a world-class education," he said. "That requires certain things. I don't think the state standards come close to that."

The main plaintiffs' group of more than 230 districts, including Willow Springs, had spent nearly $982,000 through Jan. 8, with legal fees accounting for 87 percent of the total.

A second group of a couple dozen mostly suburban districts that stepped into the case estimates it will have spent more than $700,000 by July. The bulk of that bill is also attorneys' fees, but the group also paid the University of Missouri-St. Louis Public Policy Research Center $155,000 to study property tax assessments, though an outside organization provided $50,000 toward the study's expense.

Both groups charge their member school districts $1 per student per year, a fee the groups argue is minimal compared with their overall budget and an important effort to ensure schools have enough funds.

"If I load up all the kids with expenditures we made on (the litigation), take them to McDonald's drive-through, I don't think I could feed them for $4 a child," Crane Superintendent Tyler Laney said. "The pursuit of this effort, Crane couldn't pursue this on our own."

The southwest Missouri district has contributed $731 this year, and $2,812 toward the litigation over four years, while the Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis paid $22,326 this year, and more than $80,000 in all, toward its group's legal effort.

"It's $1 per student. Our total expenditures per pupil are over $8,000 per student," said Rockwood Chief Financial Officer David Glaser. "It's a pretty small portion of our total per- pupil expenditures. Our involvement in the process of getting a new formula developed has been a good investment."

On the other side, the attorney general's office hired private attorney John Munich's firm to help defend the state. The state has paid more than $965,000 to defend the funding formula. Several attorney general staff members also are working on the case, but the office doesn't break those costs down separately. The salary for the lead assistant attorney general on the case is $90,000 a year.

Attorney general spokesman Scott Holste said the state consulted with legislative leaders a few years ago in deciding to hire the firm.

The St. Louis School District also has its own attorney in the lawsuit. The district could not immediately provide a cost figure for the litigation, but attorney Ken Brostron estimated it has cost $75,000 in the past couple months to prepare for trial, and hundreds of thousands of dollars overall. Brostron is the school board's lawyer, so his work encompasses more than the litigation.

Also involved in the case are three taxpayers who intervened in the case on the state's behalf a few months ago, but their costs are privately paid. The lead person, Bevis Schock, did not return calls seeking comment on the litigation costs. All three are board members of the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank.

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