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Opinion: Suing districts say AG's requests are too costly

Friday, October 22, 2004

I am the treasurer of the Committee for Educational Equality. The CEE was formed in 2003 when many of Missouri's public school districts joined together for the sole purpose of seeking a solution to the problem of inadequate and inequitable funding for public schools in Missouri.

The CEE first encouraged and supported a legislative solution to the problem. When it became obvious that the legislature was not going to be able to solve the problem, we were compelled, if not honor-bound, to those we serve to seek a judicial solution.

On Jan. 6, 2004, the CEE filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court against the state of Missouri alleging that the Missouri school foundation formula violates the Missouri Constitution because it does not provide adequate and equitable funding for all Missouri schoolchildren. This violates the Missouri Constitution, which states that every child in this state is entitled to a free and appropriate public education. The Missouri attorney general's office represents the state of Missouri.

The lawsuit has progressed to the point where each side can find out about the other's case. I write this because of my concern that the attorney general's office is orchestrating delay tactics because it knows this is not a case it can win.

Further, the attorney general's office is using the judicial process to punish those districts that are members of CEE, all to the detriment of Missouri schoolchildren. I will give you specific examples of why I am concerned.

1. The Missouri's attorney general's office has filed a motion asking leave to allow three Georgia attorneys to participate in the litigation. These attorneys are from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, an Atlanta law firm that recently received notoriety because of a similar case the firm handled for the state of New York. New York lost the case, but the law firm charged the taxpayers of New York $11 million in attorney fees.

Is this what it will cost our taxpayers to defend the obvious inequity and inadequacy of the current school financing mechanisms? Wouldn't this money be better spent to create a solution to the problem and not to fight about it?

The CEE has filed an objection to the use of the out-of-state attorneys participating in this case. We believe Missouri law allows the attorney general's office to hire outside counsel, but outside counsel must have the same qualifications as the attorney general including residency in the state and being a member of the Missouri bar.

2. At this phase of the lawsuit, the state has sent 70 questions to each of the 265 districts involved in the lawsuit. Included in the questions was a request for mill rates. To my knowledge, Missouri has never utilized a mill rate for property taxes, but rather utilizes tax levies. The attorney general's office hasn't done its homework as to how local property taxes are calculated in Missouri, or it would not have asked a question like this.

3. The state also asked the 265 school districts to generate numerous documents that are already public record and on file with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. To require the districts to use their limited resources to copy the volumes of paperwork that are already public would further serve to penalize the Missouri schoolchildren who are already underserved because of the foundation formula.

4. The state has also requested of the 265 districts every document produced and stored by them since Jan. 1, 1993. This is not limited to financial records, but includes things like individual teacher evaluations, student records, student test scores, superintendent and board member notes and speeches or speeches made on behalf the school by others. What does this have to do with the inadequacy of public funding?

These are but a few examples that support my fear that the attorney general's office wants a brawl in the alley. Shame on the attorney general's office for wasting the state's money and time and further seeking to waste the time and money of the 265 public school districts who are members of CEE.

The attorney general should approach this court challenge with integrity and professionalism and let the right decision come from the courts. They should not use the process to play games and further deplete the resources of the 265 public school districts that believe something must be done.

Ultimately, the attorney general is hurting the lives and future of our children.

Stephen L. Kleinsmith of Nixa, Mo., is the superintendent of the Nixa School District and treasurer of the Committee for Educational Equality.


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