JEFFERSON CITY -- A state judge on Wednesday upheld Missouri's school funding method, rejecting claims by schools that it distributes money unfairly and inadequately.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled that the state constitution provides no guarantee of absolute ''equity, equality or adequacy in the dollars spent'' or in the facilities available from one school district to another.
The ruling marks a major loss for about half the state's 524 school districts, who sued more than three years ago on claims Missouri does not direct enough money to public education and doles out the money unfairly.
Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the suing schools, said he will recommend an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Local schools that are members of the lawsuit include Sikeston R-6, Scott County Central, Scott County R-4 (Kelly), Oran R-3, Chaffee R-2, Scott City R-1, Charleston R-1, East Prairie R-2, Portageville, Gideon 37, Bernie R-13, Bloomfield R-14, Puxico R-8, Caruthersville and Malden R-1.
Sikeston R-6 Superintendent Steve Borgsmiller said obviously he and other officials from schools that joined the lawsuit were disappointed with the outcome.
"Irregardless of which way the ruling went, it was our hope this would be taken all the way to the Supreme Court because that's where we need to have this question answered," Borgsmiller said.
But this was one step, Borgsmiller said.
"If the group does appeal this initiative, our hope is that, ultimately, we'll get the ruling the kids -- not just in Sikeston R-6 but all kids -- are not getting the opportunities they need to have," Borgsmiller said.
East Prairie R-2 Superintendent Scott Downing, who is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Committee for Educational Equality, said he, too, was disappointed by the ruling.
"But I don't think we're defeated. I think it's important the school districts involved in the lawsuit remain united in our efforts to secure the adequate and equitable funding for school districts," Downing said.
Missouri spent about $2.7 billion in basic aid to schools last year. It was distributed under a formula that sets a per-pupil spending target, based on the spending levels of schools that got perfect marks on a state performance report.
Experts for the suing schools had called for spending anywhere from an additional $480 million to $1.3 billion per year on public schools. Legislative leaders and Gov. Matt Blunt had voiced concerns about raising taxes if the judge were to have sided with the schools' argument.
But Callahan said he was not convinced that the constitution requires any funding beyond its stipulation that at least one-fourth of revenues must be dedicated to schools.
The only issue Callahan left unresolved is whether the state is meeting the 25 percent threshold. The judge set a Sept. 20 hearing for additional arguments on exactly what state revenues should be included or excluded in that calculation.
Downing said after the hearing on Sept. 20, the group will get together to discuss whether or not they will appeal. He added all along it's been the group's intention to appeal.
For now they willl wait.
"We felt good about our case and still have the same cause for adequate and equitable funding," Downing said. "This was a small setback and we're going to move forward."
State budget officials testified during the trial that Missouri spent nearly 36 percent of its budget on public education.
Bartlett contends it is significantly less, because he believes only general state tax revenues -- not lottery revenues, casino taxes and other earmarked funds -- should be included in that calculation.
Because state aid is supplemented with local property tax revenues, spending by Missouri's public schools varies widely. For example, spending by K-12 school districts ranged from a low of $4,704 in Diamond to a high of $13,846 in Clayton during the 2004-2005 school year.
Callahan's decision ''is a loss for the kids,'' said Crane Superintendent Tyler Laney, a leader of the Committee for Educational Equality that brought the lawsuit. ''Because if this is the final ruling, we have just stated that the system we have in place -- which is not fair -- is fair.''
The Missouri School Boards' Association said the ruling seems to shift the burden of complying with state and federal educational mandates to local taxpayers.
But attorney Josh Schindler, whose taxpayer clients intervened as a defendant to the lawsuit, praised the ''very well-thought-out decision'' as a victory for both taxpayers and the legislative process.
''The language of Judge Callahan's ruling is so strong and the defeat to the (suing schools') arguments so complete that it is my hope that the school districts -- and in particular taxpayers -- will stop this litigation before we continue to waste additional dollars on an appeal,'' Schindler said.
Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, who helped craft the school funding formula, also urged school districts to drop their financial support for the lawsuit.
''If as a result of this ruling, if some of districts will decide to spend their money on teachers instead of lawyers, I think that's good news for kids,'' said Shields, R-St. Joseph.
In 1993, one of Callahan's predecessors struck down the state's school funding method, determining among other things that the Missouri Constitution did establish an adequate school funding right beyond the 25 percent requirement.
But Callahan noted that decision was never tested on appeal, because the Legislature changed the funding formula later that year and raised taxes to pump more money into education.
To the contrary, Callahan wrote, two Supreme Court judges issued a concurring opinion in dismissing that 1993 appeal asserting that appropriations over that 25 percent threshold were within the discretion of the Legislature. Callahan adopted similar reasoning, concluding that the constitution says lawmakers ''may'' -- not ''must'' -- choose to spend additional money if public school funding is insufficient.
Callahan also rejected claims that the school funding formula violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions. Education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, he said. The only equality standard for school funding in the state constitution was removed in 1875, Callahan added.
After school districts filed suit challenging Missouri's school funding method in January 2004, the Legislature passed a revised funding method during its 2005 session.
Callahan ruled the funding system adopted by the Legislature ''is a reasonable attempt to meet its obligations'' under the constitution to maintain a public school system.
Case is Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, 04CV-323022.
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