Coalition Says it Won’t Go Back to Court Over School Funding

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – School officials in Montana still believe the state should be providing more money for public education, but for now aren’t planning to go back to court over it.

Instead, they’re focusing on persuading the powers that be that school funding needs to be fixed if the state is to maintain a solid system of public schools.

“It’s not the court that will solve this problem,” said Mike Nicosia, vice president of the group that spearheaded the lawsuit leading to the 2004 court decision declaring state funding of schools inadequate. “It’s the governor’s office and the individual legislators. That’s where we need to solve this problem.”

The lawsuit has been before District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena since 2005, awaiting action by the Legislature on school funding and for the plaintiffs to weigh in if they choose.

Since then, annual state funding for schools has increased $140 million, or 25 percent over four years.

Nicosia and others say the money is a welcome boost after more than a decade of meager increases, which forced most school districts to raise local property taxes to pick up the slack.

Despite the increases, many schools still could face budget problems next year, when state funding is to increase only 1.5 percent.

But rather than force the issue in court, Nicosia’s group, the Montana Quality Education Coalition, will assess the needs of school districts and talk to Gov. Brian Schweitzer and legislators about what funding is still needed.

The coalition includes all of Montana’s larger urban school districts, more than 50 other districts, and organizations like MEA-MFT, the union that represents public school teachers and personnel.

Several coalition board members met this summer with David Ewer, the governor’s budget director, to discuss their concerns about future school funding.

Ewer said it was a productive meeting but that schools should keep in mind that Schweitzer doesn’t support raising taxes, and that the double-digit growth in state tax revenue of the past few years can’t continue indefinitely.

It’s too early to say what the administration might support for school-funding changes in 2009, the next time the Legislature will consider the issue, he said. And Schweitzer is up for re-election next year.

The Montana Rural Education Association, which represents most of the state’s smaller school districts, left the coalition earlier this year and hired its own attorney. But it isn’t angling for a court battle, either.

Executive Director Dave Puyear said the group will focus on making its case to the public and business leaders, to build political support for more state money for rural schools.

Rural schools have not received the ongoing money they need to recruit and retain teachers, he said.

“Right now we’re just being priced out of the market when it comes to teacher salaries,” Puyear says. “We just don’t have the money. Wyoming is just taking our teachers in Eastern Montana by the droves.”

While Puyear’s group and the MQEC don’t see eye to eye on political strategy, they generally agree on the problems still facing school funding.

The state needs to come up with a larger share of the money, and more dollars need to be ongoing, rather than the recent pots of one-time increases targeted at one-time expenditures, the groups said. One-time money can’t be used to raise teacher salaries or be relied on to pay expenses that occur year after year, they said.

“We’ve had a lot of additional funding, but it is ‘earmarked’ funding,” said Nicosia, who also is superintendent of schools at Columbia Falls. “It’s wonderful, it’s useful, but it’s not getting to the core problems. It’s not buying textbooks or materials or improving teacher salaries.”