Missouri says it is exceeding school spending requirement
Friday, September 21, 2007
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State attorneys asserted Thursday that Missouri is far exceeding a constitutional requirement for public school spending as a judge sought to wrap up the lone lingering aspect of a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit by schools.
After hearing four hours of testimony, the judge concurred the state seems to be spending more than enough, though he did not issue a formal ruling.
The suing school districts have claimed Missouri is violating its own constitution by failing to provide schools enough money and distributing what it does give them unfairly.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled against almost all of their claims last month. But he called attorneys back to his courtroom Thursday to hear additional arguments on whether the state is meeting a constitutional requirement to dedicate at least 25 percent of state revenue to public schools.
During a lengthy trial earlier this year, the state asserted it was doing even more than required by allotting nearly 36 percent of state revenue to schools in 2006.
Callahan wanted to hear more arguments because of a dispute among state officials and the suing school districts' attorneys about exactly what funds should be included in the calculation.
The attorney general's office, defending the state, contends in its legal briefs that there is "undisputed evidence" the state "spends substantially more on public education than its constitution requires."
The state treasury took in $20.9 billion in 2006. But not all of that was considered state revenue.
For example, the state revenue calculation excludes federal funds, tax refunds and bond sale proceeds, because they are borrowed money which must be paid back.
When all the various deductions are made, that $20.9 billion in receipts amounts to just $10.6 billion in actual state revenues, the state asserts. When divided by the $3.8 billion the state spent on public education, Missouri allotted almost 36 percent of its revenues to schools in 2006.
Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the suing schools, contends money dedicated for certain uses by the constitution or state law should be excluded from the state revenue and the school spending calculations.
But even under that scenario, the state spent 35 percent of its revenues on public schools in 2006, testified Marty Drewel, deputy director of budget and planning in the state Office of Administration.
Under any scenario, the state's spending on public schools is greater than the constitution's 25 percent requirement of state revenues, Drewel said.
University of Missouri-Columbia economist Joseph Haslag, testifying for several taxpayers who intervened as defendants in the lawsuit, said the evidence "conclusively establishes" the state spends more than 25 percent of its available revenues on public schools.
According to Haslag's calculations, that amount was nearly 38 percent in 2006.
Nonetheless, the suing school districts assert the 25 percent threshold is not being met.
Callahan pressed Bartlett to produce a precise percentage -- or at least say what he considers to be the state revenues and school spending dollars, so a rival calculation could be made of the percentage of money going to schools. But Bartlett declined to do so.
Attorneys for the state and taxpayer defendants expressed frustration that Bartlett declined to provide any specific figures backing up his assertion that the state wasn't meeting the constitutional mark. That made it hard defend against his assertion, said attorney general's counsel James McAdams and the taxpayers' private attorney, Joshua Schindler.
Callahan reassured them: "On the legal issues I tend to lean in your direction."
Even under a "worst-case scenario," Callahan said as the hearing concluded, it appears the state is spending at least 29 percent of its revenues on schools.
Bartlett has said the entire case likely is to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. But the judge must rule on whether the state is meeting the 25 percent spending requirement before that happens.