Coalition Goes Back to Court Over School Funding

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The Montana Quality Education Coalition filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking additional state funding for the 2008-09 school year, saying schools face budget cuts and potential layoffs.

In the lawsuit, the coalition claims the state has not determined the costs of providing a “quality” public education nor established a funding formula based on those costs. Both were required under a 2004 ruling in which District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, which led to funding increases in recent years.

“They just don’t provide for the long-term relief that we need,” said Tom Cotton, coalition chairman and superintendent of elementary schools in Deer Lodge.

Schools received an 8 percent funding increase for the 2007-08 school year, but much of that was one-time spending earmarked for things like building maintenance and establishing all-day kindergarten.

Lawmakers have allocated a 1.9 percent budget increase for the next school year. Coalition officials said that is less than the projected 4.1 percent rate of inflation.

In December, a legislative report said more than 170 school districts faced budget cuts and potential layoffs under current funding levels and many were unable to supplement their budgets with local levies.

Cotton said it became clear that returning to court was the only solution when lawmakers refused to call a special session to address school funding and Gov. Brian Schweitzer told schools not to expect any more large funding increases. Schweitzer also said he would not raise taxes to increase school funding.

“We’ve funded schools at historic levels and will continue our commitment to K-12 education,” Schweitzer said Tuesday. “We’ll also continue to work with school districts to improve their efficiency.”

Schools have argued that their boards have made all the cuts and consolidations they could while state funding remained mostly stagnant in the 14 years before Schweitzer became governor in 2004.

House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said the state is spending twice as much money on education, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it did in the 1970s.

“At some point you have to say no,” he said. “I think we’re heading for an economic downturn that could be quite severe. I don’t think now’s the time to be increasing anybody’s budgets.”

Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, said he thinks the court will find “the state is making substantial and significant progress” regarding school funding. “We’ve been trying to correct a problem that was very large … and we can’t do it all in a short period of time.”

Cotton said the coalition has put together a committee to develop a remedy for school funding and has asked the governor’s office and lawmakers to participate.

“The coalition is more than willing, and we would welcome an opportunity to resolve this outside the legal arena,” Cotton said. “We just have to sit down and find a long-term, adequate funding solution for the schools of the state.”