Missouri high court hears school funding challenge

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — After more than five years and $6 million of legal expenses, a lawsuit claiming Missouri is shortchanging its schools finally made it to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

Attorneys representing fewer than half of Missouri's 523 school districts argued that the state fails to provide enough money to schools and fails to distribute it fairly, at least partly because of a flawed local property tax system.

To the contrary, "there is no apology necessary," said State Solicitor Jim Layton, of the attorney general's office. "We provide excellent schools, excellent educational opportunities — all the way from Tarkio to Hannibal to Nevada."

The Supreme Court is considering an appeal of a 2007 decision by Cole County Judge Richard Callahan upholding the constitutionality of Missouri's school funding.

During 55 minutes of arguments Monday, school attorneys launched a two-front attack focusing on a vague constitutional provision and discrepancies in the way local assessors value property, which serves as a tax base for school districts.

Jefferson City attorney Alex Bartlett, representing more than 200 schools comprising the Committee for Educational Equality, hinged his arguments on a section in the Missouri Constitution that states:

"A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools."

Bartlett argued that the "general diffusion of knowledge" phrase amounts to a constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education to public school students. He pointed to similar phrases in other state constitutions, including Texas, where that state's Supreme Court struck down a property-tax-based school funding method in 2005.

The Texas high court, however, found that its system did meet constitutional requirements for "adequate education" and equitable facilities funding.

Layton argued that Bartlett was misconstruing Missouri's constitutional provision. He said the "general diffusion of knowledge" language merely explains the reason the Legislature must fund public schools, "but it is not itself a substantive requirement."

"This concept that the court should enforce some level of educational adequacy is really alien to the language that the people adopted" in the 1945 constitution, Layton said.

Chesterfield attorney James Owen, representing a couple of dozen school districts in the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, argued that Missouri's school funding law is flawed because it uses property assessments in 2004-2005 as a basis to calculate the local school funding effort and thus determine the state's share. Assessors in some counties significantly undervalued property in those years, creating inequities around the state, Owen said.

Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith repeatedly questioned Owen about how that put the law in violation of the state constitution, as opposed to merely providing an example of how officials wrongly carried out state law.

Layton told the court: "The law on its face is entirely equal," giving all school districts the same legal ability to raise funds.

School districts originally sued the state in January 2004. The next year, Missouri lawmakers changed the school funding formula so it is linked less to local property values and taxes and more to a per-pupil spending target. Although some schools dropped out of the lawsuit, most pressed ahead.

The Cole County court ruled in August 2007 that the state constitution provides no guarantee of absolute equity or adequacy in the dollars available from one school district to another.

Two months later, the trial court also rejected a claim that the state failed to meet a requirement of the Missouri Constitution to direct 25 percent of its revenues to public schools.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Missouri's basic aid to public schools has risen from less than $2.5 billion to a budgeted $3 billion next fiscal year.

Per-pupil expenditures by school districts ranged from a low of $4,827 to a high of $15,700 the year the lawsuit was filed. In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, per pupil spending ranged from $5,689 to $22,190.

The long-running lawsuit has cost more that $5 million in public funds, with the state spending $2 million to defend the law and the various school groups spending well over $3 million to challenge it.

In addition, about $1 million has been spent by a trio of individuals who intervened on behalf of taxpayers in defense of Missouri's school funding. Their attorney, Joshua Schindler, of St. Louis, said most of that tab has been picked up by Rex Sinquefield, a retired investment broker and conservative political activist.

Schindler said after the hearing that the lawsuit is a ludicrous example of government-funded entities suing the government.

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