JEFFERSON CITY — A Cole County judge ruled Wednesday that Missouri provides as much public school funding as the state constitution requires, rejecting a lawsuit filed by almost one-half of the state’s school districts, including Columbia Public Schools.
Cole County Judge Richard Callahan ruled in favor of the state in the last stage of a school funding lawsuit brought by the Committee for Educational Equality and the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, which comprises more than 240 of Missouri’s 524 public school districts.
In his decision Wednesday, Callahan ruled that the state has satisfied its constitutional obligation to provide at least 25 percent of the state’s annual revenue to fund public education.
Missouri is spending about $2.8 billion in basic aid on public schools this year. Experts for the schools suing had called for spending anywhere from $480 million to $1.3 billion more per year.
“It was no surprise to us,” said Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the prosecuting school districts. “Most of Judge Callahan’s decision today was in his ruling at the end of August.”
Callahan handed down a ruling against the majority of the claims of Missouri school districts Aug. 29.
Bartlett said he will recommend an appeal to the Committee for Educational Equality, which must make a decision to file for a notice of appeal within the next 40 days.
“The decision to appeal is not mine to make, but I will be recommending an appeal,” Bartlett said. “I would anticipate that there would be an appeal.”
Tom Rose, a member of the Columbia School Board, said he wasn’t initially involved in the lawsuit but was not surprised by the decision.
“I really don’t know what the thoughts of the board will be on whether we continue to pursue for an appeal,” he said.
The Columbia Public School District spent around $82,000 on the trial, Rose said.
The 25 percent funding decision was the last question in a costly and complicated lawsuit that had been in Callahan’s court for more than three years.
Callahan ruled on a large portion of the case Aug. 29, in which he rejected claims by the Committee for Educational Equality that the state distributes money unfairly because it relies heavily on property taxes.
Bartlett has said the state should not include lottery funds and gaming proceeds in its funding calculation because these funds are not directly appropriated by the state.
The state constitution states that the legislature may set aside more than 25 percent of the state budget for public education but is not required to do so.
Callahan stated the committee “would have the Court read into the constitution a ‘must’ when the drafters used the term ‘may.’ This the Court cannot and will not do.”
Callahan stated the evidence provided to him shows the state exceeds the requirement — an argument made by several state leaders, including Gov. Matt Blunt.
“Today’s ruling affirms that we are more than meeting our constitutional duties for Missouri students,” Blunt said in a news release.
Blunt encouraged the Supreme Court to uphold Callahan’s ruling if the issue is appealed.
Callahan also rejected claims that the school funding method violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection and requires equal facilities. He said income is not enough of a distinction to make a separate class.
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2004, argued that the state’s current public education funding equation is insufficient and unfair to students in low-income areas where local governments cannot support their part of the formula.
Following a 1993 lawsuit by the Committee for Educational Equality, which resulted in the state’s school funding method being deemed unconstitutional, Missouri legislators passed the Outstanding Schools Act in 2005. The act changed the funding formula and added $300 million per year in state funding.
“This decision by Judge Callahan is 180 degrees contrary to the decision made by Judge Kinder in 1993,” Bartlett said.
The 1993 decision held that the state constitution provides a right for funding beyond the 25 percent, but the decision never reached a final judgment because the legislature then changed the funding formula.
The court fight already has cost at least $5.3 million. That includes more than $3.2 million spent by the school groups on attorneys’ fees, expert witnesses, research studies, depositions, document copies, conference calls and other items.
The state, meanwhile, has paid more than $1.4 million to an Atlanta-based law firm with expertise in school funding issues to help defend against the lawsuit. The defense of Missouri’s school funding system also has been aided by about $700,000 in private attorney expenses paid by retired investment banker Rex Sinquefield, one of the intervening taxpayers.
— Missourian reporters Sarah D. Wire, Rebekah Sasse and Lyndsey Nelson and The Associated Press contributed to this story.