Judge delays school funding lawsuit

Friday, December 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:00 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Attorney General Jay Nixon will decide the constitutionality of Missouri’s school foundation formula, which is meant to provide equal and adequate funds for the state’s public school students.

After a hearing in Cole County Circuit Court on Thursday, Judge Richard Callahan granted the state’s request to delay a school funding lawsuit for several months — but only if the state concedes that the current system is unconstitutional. Callahan granted a 15-day period for the attorney general’s office to report a decision on whether the current school funding formula violates the Missouri Constitution.

More than 250 school districts sued the state in January, claiming its method of funding public schools is inadequate. Although the state constitution names equitable public school funding as a priority — second only to paying off debt, the suing districts say the state has not given them a fair share of the money.

The state had sought a stay in the case until after the legislature adjourned in May to give lawmakers time to change the formula and save money.

The school districts countered, saying they would agree to the delay only if the court issued a preliminary order finding the system unconstitutional. They argued that the order should become permanent if the state fails to adopt a new formula in the spring.

“I don’t see (the decision) as being an impediment,” said Alex Bartlett, the attorney representing the Committee for Educational Equality.

Pending the attorney general’s decision, further discovery on the case is halted.

“I think it’s a very wise decision by Judge Callahan to kind of put it in the party’s hands to a certain extent and yet give the state the relief they requested,” said Audrey McIntosh, an attorney representing the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools.

During the hearing, McIntosh said the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had requested $900 million to fund the current school foundation formula. The formula is the state’s funding device for Missouri’s public schools. A discrepancy of $9,000 in per-pupil spending exists between the highest and lowest school districts in the state, according to a 2003 report from the state auditor’s office.

“I am pleased that this provides an opportunity for us to all move forward in a shorter period of time,” said Phyllis Chase, Columbia school superintendent and member of the Committee for Educational Equality board.

Upon hearing from the plaintiffs that strong motivation from the court will be necessary to move the school funding formula forward in the General Assembly, Judge Callahan responded, “I don’t think the legislative branch responds to hammers very well.”

Ten minutes after hearing arguments, Callahan issued a decision.

“It is in the public interest to allow the General Assembly and governor the opportunity to exercise their constitutional authority to enact new legislation and appropriate state funds for public education,” Callahan wrote.

The attorney general’s office originally filed for a halt on litigation early this month. The goal was to give the newly elected legislators and governor a chance to legislate a new funding formula for Missouri’s schools.

James McAdams, an attorney with the office of the attorney general, described an absence of antagonism in the legislature, which he said would facilitate the crafting of a new formula.

“I think our goal is to save taxpayer money that is being spent on attorneys for both sides while the General Assembly moves forward with a solution,” said Scott Holste, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. “We trust that the General Assembly is going to go forward with what they said they were going to do, which is to work on the foundation formula this session.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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