Hearing Starts in Ongoing School Funding Dispute

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Education groups asked a judge Monday to rule that the state has failed to address his 4-year-old ruling that declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional.

The old court battle over school funding was renewed in Helena District Court, where arguments over the issue are expected to last most of the week.

Earlier this year, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said he was unsure if the state had fixed the school funding formula that school districts argue is inadequate. The judge ordered both sides back into court for the compliance proceeding, and said he was worried that most school funding is still funneled through the old formula that he found problematic.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition and others want Sherlock to find the state has not done enough to meet his 2004 ruling.

“Since that decision, some good things have happened and some not so good things. That’s why we are here,” education association attorney Jim Molloy said.

The state, however, argued it has increased school funding 25 percent over the past four years through a series of regular and special legislative sessions, interim committees and executive requests.

Before renewing the lawsuit, the MQEC wanted negotiations with the state over a settlement offer that calls for an extra $260 million per year in school funding.

But both Attorney General Mike McGrath and Gov. Brian Schweitzer proclaimed that the lawsuit is no longer relevant following changes made in recent years to funding levels.

The governor said the new hearing is a waste of money.

“This is an example of taxpayers suing taxpayers and taxpayers paying for lawyers on both sides,” Schweitzer said Monday in a statement. “This is money that could be going towards other things like teacher salaries or technology in the classroom.”