Lawsuit to contest K-12 school funds

Missouri districts say state funding lacks equity.
Sunday, November 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:17 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Boone County is considering joining more than 200 other Missouri school districts set to challenge the state’s kindergarten through 12 funding system. While none of the county’s six school districts have come to a decision, the issue is before most school boards across the county.

Thomas Baugh, Hallsville superintendent, supports the planned suit. “The amount of per-pupil funding given to kids in the richest and poorest districts in the state are not even close, and getting worse,” Baugh said.

The Hallsville school board has tabled the issue and revisited it twice. “Their hope is that the legislature will see the inequities of what’s occurring with funding and correct them, but I’m not so sure it won’t take litigation to get that done,” Baugh said. His sentiments are shared by many superintendents and legislators alike.

Alex Bartlett, the attorney preparing the suit, has broadened its appeal to districts across the state by adding the issue of adequacy of funding to the suit — charging that the state is not providing enough money for education.

In 1993, Bartlett led a group of 89 school districts in a successful challenge of Missouri’s funding system. The courts found that the formula used to fund local schools led to inequities in the quality of education across the state.

The addition of adequacy has caught the attention of Boone County school officials. “Equity is in the eye of the beholder,” said Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent of Columbia School District.

“But when you talk about what is the floor-level of adequate funding to meet laws like special education laws and No Child Left Behind, that’s a different concept.” The school board plans to discuss the suit at length at its Nov. 10 meeting, Cowherd said.

A recent study presented before the state legislature’s joint interim committee on education found that $913 million more was needed to adequately fund Missouri schools.

On Monday, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education submitted a request to the legislature for an $820.2 million increase for the next fiscal year.

State budget withholdings from local schools have led districts across the state that are heavily dependent on state aid to question the constitutionality of the current school funding system. The Missouri constitution promises equal education to all Missouri students.

As withholdings have been made, however, a disparity in funding has developed between schools with more local wealth and higher property taxes, and those heavily dependent on state money.

Baugh said that compared to districts across the state, Hallsville is at or above the state average. “We’ve been a growing district and have strict management by our school board, and we were able to give raises to people and have not laid off people, unlike districts across the state,” Baugh said.

Local residents in Centralia approved a property tax increase in April 2002. “We are lucky to have good local revenue resources that reduce our dependence on state aid,” said Glenn Brown, Centralia superintendent.

While Boone County districts are insulated from the full brunt of withholdings by local money and other factors, superintendents are concerned about future withholdings.

“I have great fears,” Brown said. “We haven’t had to lay off any personnel, but at the same time we haven’t been able to add personnel to match the increase in class sizes.”

The Centralia school board recently heard a presentation about the lawsuit, and while no action was taken, Brown said it was clear that it was an issue to be taken up in November.

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