Schools weigh lawsuit

The Columbia Board of Education is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to join the attempt to revamp funding.
Sunday, December 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:26 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The superintendent of the Columbia Public School District, Phyllis Chase, has issued a district recommendation to join a lawsuit that will attempt to change how school funding is distributed in Missouri.

The recommendation, included on the agenda for a Monday meeting of the School Board, states that the district should be “actively involved” in the efforts to “maintain district financial stability” and that the proposed lawsuit by the Committee for Educational Equality seems to be the “most effective” for the Columbia district.

The lawsuit, already joined by 228 out of 524 districts in Missouri, is designed to bring about a new plan for distributing state money in a more adequate and equitable way. The board is scheduled to vote at Monday’s meeting on whether to join the suit.

“Adequacy is an issue,” Chase said Friday. She said she is in favor of joining the suit because the district will have a $19 million funding shortfall this year under the current formula.

At a work session Nov. 20, several board members voiced concerns about the cost of seeing the lawsuit through. Members were also concerned about how much influence Columbia would have among more than 200 districts in the state that are participating in the suit.

Chase said she knows the board is concerned with what role the district will play, but she expects that Columbia will have some say in formulating the remedy.

As proof of the importance of the role the district could play in the lawsuit, Chase said she had recently been contacted by Tyler Laney, chairman of the group that has been picked to lead the lawsuit. The group contains 10 current and two retired superintendents from across the state. Laney asked Chase to be a member of the group, if Columbia chooses to participate.

Board President Russ Still said he supports joining the suit and thinks the district would be wise to do so. Pointing to Columbia’s lower-than-average real property value figures, which figure into the current formula for allotting funds, Still said he thinks the lawsuit will allow Columbia to get more equity in state funding. The city’s low property value figures are due to the large amount of nontaxable property, including MU.

Some board members have argued that it is better to sit back and let other districts handle the suit.

Still said the Columbia district’s expertise in public relations could be used to help the litigation succeed.

Once the suit is filed, the case could ultimately come before the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City. Still said the district’s high “visibility” in the Capitol would make Columbia one of the lead players in the suit.

Board member Karla DeSpain said one of her major concerns is whether Columbia would be adequately represented within the large group.

However, DeSpain said, if the courts act as they have in the past and put the remedy proposal to the districts, participation in the suit would allow Columbia to be involved in developing the solution.

But, DeSpain said, she’s not sure the return from the suit will be a valuable use of district money in a tight financial year. According to the board agenda, the district would spend more than $8,100 to join the suit, with additional assessments expected.

DeSpain said she was still weighing the issues and wasn’t prepared Friday to say whether she supports joining the suit. Board Vice President J.C. Headley said he is saving his opinions for the meeting.

Chase said she intends to present the facts to the board at Monday’s meeting.

“I trust the process,” she said.

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