Schools Rebut State Argument in Funding Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Quality Education Coalition is renewing its request for a court hearing on the six-year-old school funding lawsuit, and disputing state arguments that the problem has been fixed.

The arguments came in a court filing the group made Friday in the case, where it is seeking another hearing and more money for the upcoming school year.

The coalition says that the state has not determined the costs of providing a “quality” public education, nor established a funding formula based on those costs. It says the state has failed to live up to requirements in a 2004 ruling from District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.

The state says it has increased school funding in recent years, and both Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Mike McGrath say the lawsuit is now moot.

But the coalition says there needs to be a hearing because the state has not solved the underlying problems.

It also says school districts face budget cuts and potential layoffs because many of the state funding increases were “one-time” appropriations, and not part of the funding formula.

“Because they are not part of a funding system or formula, school districts cannot rely upon these appropriations to implement long term planning, nor can they use the funds to pay for ongoing costs of meeting standards and employing staff to provide educational programs and services that they must provide,” coalition attorney Jim Molloy wrote in the brief. “Thus, the state cannot rely upon these one time only appropriations to argue that it has met its constitutional responsibilities.”

The attorney general’s office declined comment.

In an earlier court brief, the state noted that five legislative sessions have elapsed with significant school funding changes since the courts first ruled the funding system unconstitutional.

The state says any complaints would require that the coalition file a new lawsuit.

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.

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