Judge to hear whether state is doing its part for lower education funding
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Judge to hear whether state is doing its part for lower education funding

Date: September 7, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The adequacy of Missouri public school funding remains an issue a week after a Cole County judge ruled there is no constitutional guarantee of equal funding among districts across the state.

Judge Richard Callahan will hold a Sept. 20 hearing to learn more about whether the state is putting 25 percent of its annual budget toward public schools as is required by Missouri's constitution.

In his decision released Aug. 29, Callahan 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 state claims it spends more than required per student, but Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the committee, 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 committee, which represents almost half of Missouri's 524 public school districts, including Columbia Public Schools, claimed using local taxes creates wide funding gaps among districts.

"We're disappointed, but we knew from the outset this would be a long haul," Bartlett said. "It's not an open and shut issue."

Rep. Ed Robb, D-Columbia, said that because some areas of the state are primarily agricultural and others are commerce-based, the equation can create inequalities in public education funding. But if the committee had won, he said, the result would have been unfair to wealthier districts.

"You'd have to tax the rich areas higher," Robb said. "And then right away you have a problem."

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 equation is insufficient and unfair to students in low-income areas where local governments cannot support their part of the formula.

Committee vice-chairman Tyler Laney said the current school funding model is like lining up students and picking which student is worth more.

"Not everything is equal in the state of Missouri," said Laney, who is also superintendent of the Crane R-3 School District in southeastern Missouri. "Kids don't get to vote on school funding; basically they get what we give them."

Missouri public schools are funded partially through the state and partially through local taxes, so budgets can vary by district. State funding is based on a per-student amount.

Callahan said the state constitution does not require equal funding throughout the state.

"It is designed to be a formula that is based on the cost of educating a child, not where you live, not what property taxes are, not what the assessed evaluation is in your district, but what it actually costs to educate a child," Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said.

Laney said the school districts spent $5 per student over the three years. "I can feed kids for that much at McDonald's," Laney said.

Robb questioned why a wealthy school district such as Columbia's would get involved in a lawsuit about equality.

"I'm not sure what they think they'd win," Robb said. "If we have to rewrite the formula with the same amount of money, what would happen to Columbia?"

Superintendent Phyllis Chase said Columbia became involved to focus on the adequate funding issue in hopes the lawsuit would help with infrastructure problems and with the districts current $6 million to $8 million deficit spending.

Chase said a change in the funding formula would reduce local taxpayer's responsibility.

In 2007, the state budget designated $2.74 billion for lower education, a 3.8 percent increase from the previous year.

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. The act changed the funding formula and added $300 million per year in state funding.

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

A year later, the legislature changed the funding formula. But Bartlett said the new formula still does not fully fund public education in the state.

He and the committee claim state public schools need about $1 billion more in funding.

Callahan said in his decision that funding increases are an issue for the legislature, not the courts.

Once the judge resolves the budget issue, the school districts must decide if they will file for a rehearing or appeal to the state supreme court.

"If it was up to me, I would appeal," Bartlett said. "Given an odds situation, I'd say there's about a 99 percent certainty there would be an appeal."

Laney agreed and said he'd be surprised if the committee chose not to appeal.

Chase said that sometime after the Sept. 20 hearing, the Columbia School Board will vote on whether the district will get involved in the appeal.

But some legislators think this should be the end of the lawsuit.

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said, "I really think that it's time for patrons to demand some accountability from school boards and superintendents and ask them why these dollars were being diverted from our classrooms and our teachers into the pockets of greedy lawyers.... Those that continue down this path, I think their patrons need to hold them accountable."