School Coalition Returning to Court

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The group that spearheaded the lawsuit leading to the 2004 court decision declaring state funding of schools inadequate says it’s heading back to court to try to get more money for public education.

The Montana Quality Education Committee board voted Thursday to return to state District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena, arguing that the state and the Montana Legislature have not fulfilled his 2004 order to design funding that provides a constitutionally guaranteed “basic system of free, quality” schools.

“We don’t have any other option than to demonstrate to the court that the work is not yet done,” said Tom Cotton, superintendent of Deer Lodge elementary schools and chairman of the MQEC board.

The coalition, which includes districts that educate 70 percent of the state’s schoolchildren, plans to file court papers in Helena the first week of February. The filing will ask Sherlock to rule that the state hasn’t complied with his 2004 ruling and to order relief for schools in the coming school year.

Cotton said the decision was prompted by concerns that many schools are facing personnel and program cuts this fall, despite a 26 percent increase in state funds over the past four years.

Cotton and other school officials have said that state funding and budget authority for public schools are increasing only 1.9 percent this fall, and schools can’t maintain programs that constitute a “quality education” at that level.

He said the education interests felt their only option was to go back to court, since the governor and legislative leaders are saying they won’t call a special legislative session to approve more funding for schools.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said his administration will continue to be a “passionate advocate for K-12 education,” but that there are “a lot of competing needs for (state) money.”

“They need to compete for these dollars, with all of these other functions of government,” he said. “There’s a limit at some point.”

Schweitzer, a Democrat, has said he won’t support tax increases to pay for schools or any other government programs, and that education must survive on its portion of funds from current tax sources.

He also said the state has met the court mandate and is “on legally defensible grounds.”

Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, also said he doesn’t believe a special session on school funding is necessary.

Schools suffered through years of inadequate funding, but “we’ve made tremendous strides in correcting the problem” the past couple of years, Cooney said.

“The hole is big, it’s deep, and we can’t fix it in just a few years,” he said. “I think we’ve been very responsible in approaching this at the level of funding that we’ve done. We can’t simply answer the call in one or two legislative sessions.”