COLUMBIA — After a state judge upheld Missouri’s school funding method Wednesday, Superintendent Phyllis Chase, of Columbia Public Schools, expressed disappointment but was quick to say that follow-up decisions could still change the outcome.
Judge Richard Callahan, of the Cole County circuit, ruled in favor of Missouri’s funding distribution method and against school district claims that funds are distributed in an unacceptable manner.
“Obviously, we were hoping for a different outcome,” Chase said. “But at this point we’re trying to understand the rationale behind the decision and the judge’s ruling.”
Callahan ruled that the state constitution provides no guarantee of absolute “equity, equality or adequacy in the dollars spent” or in the facilities available from one school district to another.
According to attorney Alex Bartlett, who has been representing the suing schools, an appeal to the state Supreme Court will be recommended.
The ruling marks a major loss for about half the state’s 524 school districts, who sued more than three years ago on claims that Missouri does not allot enough money to public education and doles out the money unfairly. Columbia Public Schools was among the districts that joined the lawsuit.
“We joined this lawsuit because our board is not only concerned about adequate funding for our district, but for districts throughout the entire state,” Chase said.
Missouri spent about $2.7 billion in basic aid to schools last year. It was distributed under a formula that sets a per-pupil spending target based on the spending levels of schools that got perfect marks on a state performance report.
“This decision not only affects students and their families, but the community as a whole,” said Michelle Baumstark, the district’s school programs and communication coordinator. “The burden falls on local taxpayers when state government doesn’t provide enough funding.”
Chase noted that the community has funded much of Columbia Public Schools over the years.
“We have a local community that has really stepped up and provided funding for us,” Chase said. “Over 60 percent of our funding comes from local assessment.”
Experts for the suing schools had called for spending anywhere from an additional $480 million to $1.3 billion per year on public schools. Legislative leaders and Gov. Matt Blunt had voiced concerns about raising taxes were the judge to have sided with the schools’ argument.
But Callahan said he was not convinced that the constitution requires any funding beyond its stipulation that at least one-fourth of revenues must be dedicated to schools.
The only issue Callahan left unresolved is whether the state is meeting the 25 percent threshold. The judge set a Sept. 20 hearing for additional arguments on exactly what state revenues should be included or excluded in that calculation.
State budget officials testified during the trial that Missouri spent nearly 36 percent of its budget on public education.
Bartlett contends it is significantly less, because he believes only general state tax revenues — not lottery revenues, casino taxes and other earmarked funds — should be included in that calculation.
Chase said she is hopeful for the decisions to come.
“Judge Callahan made it clear that there are follow-up decisions to be made and that other things will be assessed,” Chase said. “I will suspend my own reaction until those things are addressed.”
Spending by Missouri’s public schools varies widely because state aid is supplemented with local property tax revenues. For example, spending by K-12 school districts ranged from a low of $4,704 in Diamond to a high of $13,846 in Clayton during the 2004-05 school year.
Callahan’s decision “is a loss for the kids,” said Crane Superintendent Tyler Laney, a leader of the Committee for Educational Equality, which brought the lawsuit. “Because if this is the final ruling, we have just stated that the system we have in place — which is not fair — is fair.”
The Missouri School Boards’ Association said the ruling seems to shift the burden of complying with state and federal educational mandates to local taxpayers.
But attorney Josh Schindler, whose taxpayer clients intervened as a defendant to the lawsuit, praised the “very well-thought out decision” as a victory for both taxpayers and the legislative process.
“The language of Judge Callahan’s ruling is so strong and the defeat to the (suing schools’) arguments so complete that it is my hope that the school districts — and in particular taxpayers — will stop this litigation before we continue to waste additional dollars on an appeal,” Schindler said.
Baumstark said Columbia Public Schools will go forward with the appeal process.
“This certainly isn’t a closed case,” she said.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.