School-Funding Trial Set

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A trial on whether the state of Montana is still underfunding public schools is scheduled for late September in Helena.

The trial is expected to last a week before District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.

It will begin either Sept. 22 or Sept. 29, depending on whether an unrelated trial goes ahead as planned on the 22nd.

The September trial is the latest episode in a legal and political battle that began in 2003. A coalition of school districts, unions, education groups and parents sued the state, saying it failed to live up to its constitutional obligation of funding a “free, quality” system of public schools.

The schools won the lawsuit, but went back to court earlier this year, saying the state still isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation.

The school argue that many school districts are facing budget cuts this fall, in large part because the state isn’t keeping up its share of funding and hasn’t properly revised its school-funding formula as ordered by Sherlock in 2004.

The state will argue at trial that funding increases and changes in 2005 and 2007 have addressed the problems, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said last week.

“Our case is that the state has complied with the court’s request” from 2004, he said. “The system is not unconstitutional.”

The state hasn’t compiled its list of witnesses for the trial, but lawyers for the schools said they expect state Budget Director David Ewer will be one of the witnesses.

Among the schools’ expected witnesses at the trial are Billing Schools Superintendent Jack Copps, Bozeman Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller and Helena Schools Superintendent Bruce Messinger.

The Billings and Bozeman school districts are looking at program reductions and possible layoffs this year.

If the schools win their case, it likely would be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which may not rule until early next year, when the 2009 Legislature will be in session.

Earlier this month, Sherlock rejected the state’s request to dismiss the case, saying the schools have “provided evidence that the same defective funding formula that was before this court and the Montana Supreme Court in 2004 and 2005 may not have been changed as required” by the courts.

However, he also said the schools will bear the burden proving that current state funding is inadequate.

The original lawsuit, filed in 2003, said years of under-funding by the state had led to widespread program cuts, accreditation failures and difficulty in recruiting teachers, among other things.

Sherlock ruled in the schools’ favor in April 2004, and his order was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court later that year.

The high court also left the case open and under Sherlock’s jurisdiction.