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Schools sue for more state money

Districts' case, which starts this week, has taken three years to come to trial

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

1/16/05

In a massive case that could put hundreds of millions of state tax dollars on the line, about half of the state's 524 school districts will go to court this week demanding more state education money.

The school districts will attempt to establish that the more than $2.7 billion Missouri spends on its public schools is inadequate to give children a chance at a decent education.

It's a legal argument that's prevailed recently in many states, with huge financial consequences. A ruling in 2005 led Kansas to pony up an additional $800 million in state spending, while courts have forced Wyoming to nearly double state aid in the last decade.

The Missouri case - which has taken three years to come to trial - is expected to put school administrators from across the state on the stand. The case in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City involves dozens of lawyers, tens of thousands of pages of documents, and a cast of education experts from across the country.

Alex Bartlett, the Jefferson City lawyer leading the Missouri suit, said his goal is to have the state's school funding system ruled unconstitutional. And while he won't place a price tag on how much more the state should spend, he says even a modest increase per student could require $1 billion or more in state money.

Bartlett has a good track record when it comes to school funding lawsuits. In 1992, he successfully challenged the state's school aid formula in a case that led to $315 million in additional school spending. Bartlett believes those suing the state are in an even better position today.

But defenders of Missouri's school funding system believe the state has done everything right in the past few years to fend off an expensive court ruling.

They point to the adoption in 2005 of a new school spending plan that attempts to mimic the philosophy favored by many courts nationwide. The plan calls for the state to spend upwards of $800 million more on schools over a seven-year span. More than $120 million has already gone to the new formula.

A lead architect of that plan, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, said the plaintiffs in the suit seek a level of funding that would break the state's back.

"What these school districts would define as adequate would cost the state $2 billion, " said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "I just don't think that's realistic."

New formula

The Legislature passed the state's new school funding formula, in large part, as a response to the school funding lawsuit. Even so, nearly all the districts have stuck with the litigation.

The new formula transforms how tax dollars flow to schools. An old formula sought to level the playing field between poor and rich districts. Under that plan, districts that lacked the ability to raise local tax money received extra help from the state.

The new formula focuses more on how much is spent on each child. The state promises to bring spending up to about $6,200 per pupil each year, provided local districts set an adequate local tax rate. The formula provides extra money for children with special needs, and spends more in suburban and urban areas, where teacher labor costs are higher.

But the formula's overall philosophy could be most critical to the case. Under the plan, the minimum spending per pupil is based on the amount spent by schooldistricts that fare best on state performance measures.

Shields said the plan works because the state has defined what an adequate education costs, then agreed to pay for it.

"We looked at successful school districts then set the level of funding, " he said.

But where Shields sees strengths in the new formula, others see vulnerabilities.

For starters, the Legislature opted to pay for the new plan over seven years. Bartlett says that by delaying full funding the state is essentially agreeing that it isn't yet paying for an adequate education.

Bartlett argues that the state used a flawed method to calculate minimum student spending. He said the figure was based on the amount spent by more than 100 districts, including many with marginal performance.

He said if the state had looked at only the most excellent schools districts, the formula would have cost an additional $1,500 per child a year. That adds up to over $1 billion statewide, he said.

Trial starts this week

The trial, which is slated to begin Wednesday, will pit the school districts against the state. Eight lawyers from Attorney General Jay Nixon's office will lead the defense. Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan has set aside most of January and February for the case.

Because so many school districts are involved, the case will zero in on the workings of about three dozen of them.

Locally, the "focus districts" include Affton, Kirkwood and Clayton.

"Each district will have a story to tell, " Bartlett said.

Affton, for instance, will focus on serving immigrants.

John Fougere, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, would not comment on defense strategy, other than to say that the state plans to prove that the spending plan is constitutional.

Others involved in the case say one of the state's likely strategies will be to show that school spending has little to do with student success. St. Louis Public Schools, for example, is among the highest-spending districts in the state, and yet it trails nearly all in performance.

"There's no statistically reliable relationship between what a district spends and the performance a district has, " said Michael Podgursky, a University of Missouri professor who is scheduled to testify for the state.

Local tax dollars

Most of the 260 school districts in the lawsuit are from outside the St. Louis area and have relatively low levels of spending. But the suit also includes 25 wealthier districts, including several from the St. Louis area. Those districts want to make sure that any new spending plan does not take local property tax money from rich areas and send it to poor districts.

Clayton Superintendent Don Senti said many suburban districts will use the trial to push for new tax assessment policies. For years, rural counties have been criticized for questionable assessment practices, which could artificially reduce local school tax revenue.

"The big issue is the inequity of assessment across the state, " Senti said.

Opponents of the lawsuit will make one last bid to have the case dismissed at a hearing set for this afternoon. But those on both sides of the case say they see nothing to stop it from going to trial Wednesday.

Shields said he's frustrated because taxpayers will pay the legal bills on both sides. Even so, he's confident of the outcome.

"The lawyers will win, the kids will lose, but I think the formula will be upheld in court, " he said.

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