State Says School Funding Lawsuit is “Moot”

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The six-year-old lawsuit that challenges Montana’s school funding as inadequate is not relevant under current conditions and therefore is moot, the state attorney general argued in documents filed in court on Friday.

The documents are in response to a request the Montana Quality Education Coalition made early in February, seeking a new hearing and more state funding of public education during the 2008-09 school year. The coalition filed that request in District Court.

Schools say that without more money, budget cuts and layoffs are likely.

The lawsuit claims the state has not determined the costs of providing a “quality” public education nor established a proper formula, both required pieces of a District Court ruling that declared the school funding system unconstitutional.

The state has argued that school funding has increased dramatically since the lawsuit was filed six years ago.

“Since this court’s order and the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case, five legislative sessions have passed with the enactment of significant revisions to the school funding laws,” according to court documents from Attorney General Mike McGrath’s office. “This case is moot.”

The brief says that today’s school funding is much different from funding in 2002, and a continuing challenge would require a new lawsuit.

Tom Cotton, chairman of the Quality Education Coalition and superintendent of elementary schools in Deer Lodge, said the state’s response is not a surprise.

“That’s probably the tact we thought they would take,” he said. “And we would not agree with that position.”

Cotton said the state has failed to live up to the court’s earlier rulings by not establishing a sustainable, ongoing solution for funding schools.

“From our standpoint, we feel very strongly we have a very defensible position,” Cotton said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has told schools not to expect any more large increases in state funding. Increases in recent years rose to historic levels, he has said.

Schools argue that much of the new money allocated this year went toward starting all-day kindergarten programs established by the Legislature.