School board split on joining lawsuit

Members debate spending money when budget is tight.
Friday, November 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:42 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Columbia School Board failed to decide Thursday morning whether to join a lawsuit for equity and adequacy in school funding in Missouri. But the board did raise key issues that it said need to be researched before it votes on the matter in December.

The proposed lawsuit, which is being led by attorney Alex Bartlett of Jefferson City and so far involves 228 of the state’s 524 districts, would challenge Missouri’s formula for how districts receive money.

On Thursday, the School Board reviewed Bartlett’s Nov. 10 presentation about the suit. His intention is to file the suit before the end of the year.

It would cost the Columbia Public School District a little more than $8,000 to join, said Deputy Superintendent Jacque Cowherd. Members are concerned about how that money would be used and how much more it might cost to see the suit to its conclusion.

“We don’t know what the costs will be in the long run and that bothers me,” said board member Karla DeSpain.

Cowherd said early budget estimates, which are predicting state budget shortfalls for 2004, paint a bleak picture for school financing in the state. He told the board that Jim Moody, a former state budget director under Gov. John Ashcroft, has estimated that the state could receive $500 million less than previously estimated. Moody’s revised estimates would mean the district could be underfunded by more than 25 percent.

“The district has always been better off to participate in the formula, assuming it is somewhere close to full funding,” Cowherd said. “However, as they start to pull money away from the formula, that would change drastically.”

Board President Russ Still was one of the few to express a desire to join the lawsuit.

“It’s important to be one of the players in the game and not on the sideline,” Still said.

Board members J.C. Headley and David Ballenger questioned whether the district needs to join the suit. They said the districts that have already joined represent Columbia’s funding concerns.

While other board members were reluctant to join the suit, Elton Fay was ambivalent.

“I would like to join the suit,” he said, “but I can’t vote to put more district funds (toward litigation) in a short year when we are already paying the same attorney for another case.”

Fay was referring to a tax-challenge suit against the district filed by Henry Lane, which is currently before the appeals court.

Board member Kerry Crist said she thinks it’s important to join the suit so that Columbia has input on how the formula is reworked.

After Thursday’s discussion, the board decided to wait until its Dec. 8 meeting to make a decision so that concerns could be investigated and all members could become familiar with the suit.

But Ballenger didn’t see the point in putting the decision off until December.

“What are we going to do different in December? The cost is not going to change.”

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