Judge rules in favor of the state in school funding lawsuit, schools not sure if they will appeal
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Judge rules in favor of the state in school funding lawsuit, schools not sure if they will appeal

Date: October 17, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The state provides as much public school funding as the Missouri Constitution requires, a Cole County Judge ruled Wednesday in rejecting a lawsuit filed by almost one-half of the state's school districts including Columbia Public Schools.

Cole County Judge Richard Callahan decided in favor of the state in the last stage of a school funding lawsuit brought by the Committee for Educational Equality and  the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, which are comprised of almost half of Missouri's 524 public school districts.

In a Wednesday decision, Callahan held that the state has satisfied it's constitutional obligation to provide at least 25 percent of the state's annual revenue to funding public education.

The Committee's attorney, Alex Bartlett, said the group has not yet decided if they will appeal to the Supreme Court, but will meet in the near future to decide.

Attorney General's spokesman John Fougere did not return phone calls for comment.

The 25-percent funding decision was the last question in a costly and complicated lawsuit that had been in Callahan's court for more than three years.

"After hearing the comments of the judge during the Sept. 20 hearing, we weren't surprised," Bartlett said. "I would anticipate that there would be an appeal."

Callahan ruled on a large portion on the case Aug. 29, in which he rejected claims by the Committee for Educational Equality that the state distributes money unfairly because it relies heavily on local taxes despite low property values in many parts of the state.

The Committee for Educational Equality originally argued in the case that the state did not reach it's constitutionally mandated 25 percent of the state budget in funding public education.

In an earlier interview, Bartlett said this is only because the state includes lottery funds and gaming proceeds in the calculation. Because these funds are not directly appropriated by the state, Bartlett maintains they should be excluded from the funding equation.

The Constitution states that the legislature may set aside more than 25 percent of the state budget for public education but is not required to do so.

Callahan stated the Committee "would have the court read into the Constitution a 'must' when the drafters used the term 'may.' This the Court cannot and will not do."

Callahan stated the evidence provided to him shows the state exceeds the requirement, an argument made by several state leaders including Gov. Matt Blunt.

"Today's ruling affirms that we are more than meeting our constitutional duties for Missouri students," Blunt stated in a news release.

Blunt encouraged the Supreme Court to uphold Callahan's ruling if the issue is appealed.

In the first half of the suit, the committee claimed using local taxes to fund part of public school budget's creates wide funding gaps among districts.

Callahan also rejected claims that the school funding method violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection and requires equal facilities. He said income is not enough of a distinction to make a separate class.

The lawsuit, begun in 2004, argued the state's current public education funding equation is insufficient and unfair to students in low-income areas where local governments cannot support their part of the formula.

Following a 1993 lawsuit by the Committee for Educational Equality, which resulted in the state's school funding method being deemed unconstitutional, Missouri legislators passed the Outstanding Schools Act in 2005. The act changed the funding formula and added $300 million per year in state funding.

"This decision by Judge Callahan is a 180 degrees contrary to the decision made by Judge Kinder in 1993," Bartlett said.

The 1993 decision held that the Constitution provides a right for funding  beyond the 25 percent but the decision never reached a final judgment and because the legislature then changed the funding formula.

The committee filed the most recent suit in 2004, challenging that formula.