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Judge calls for new school funding plan

| April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

The State of Montana will have until October 2005 to formulate a new system for financing public schools, a district judge ruled Thursday.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition sued the state in 2002, arguing that the funding system was unconstitutional and not equitable. Libby, along with Columbia Falls, was one of the first districts in the state to join the coalition.

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena ruled that funding was distributed equitably throughout the state, but the state is not providing its share of the money.

Citing the state constitution, Sherlock said the document imposes clear mandatory duties on the Legislature.

³Among those duties is the requirement that the Legislature fund the state¹s share of the costs of basic elementary and secondary school system,² Sherlock said.

To satisfy the constitution, Sherlock said the state¹s financing system must be based upon a determination of the needs and costs of the public school system, and must be designed and based upon educationally relevant factors.

The judge postponed the effect of his decision until October 2005, in anticipation of an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. Sherlock also wanted to give the next Legislature ample time to address the complicated issues in the case and come up with a solution.

The ruling did not specify how much additional funding must be spent by the state for schools, instead heaping the responsibility on the Legislature.

A committee was assembled by the state several years ago to brainstorm different ways to improve the funding system and generate additional revenue for schools. The group is made up of a cross-section of school administrators, teachers and community members from across the state.

³That commission was assembled as a way for the state to be proactive and a way to examine the different issues,² said Libby Superintendent Kirby Maki.

Sherlock¹s ruling will give other interested parties a chance to put together a clear plan and present options to the Legislature to make its decision easier, Maki said.

³The ruling didn¹t just pass it off on the Legislature,² he said. ³It gave some time for other concerned parties to come up with a plan on how to generate the needed revenue and figure out what some of the options are. The Legislature can actually act on those items when it gets to that point.²

Before any solutions can be found, Maki said the state first must define ³quality education.²

³If that¹s what you¹re trying to provide and you don¹t even have a definition for it, that doesn¹t work,² he said. ³It¹s going to be quite a process.²

The appeals process could postpone implementation of the ruling, making 2005 an unrealistic timeframe. Regardless, Maki said the decision is good news.

³This is positive,² he said. ³Whatever plan they come up with has to be better than what we have right now. I would think with all the intelligent people out there, they should be able to come up with different ways to put revenue into education without significantly taking away from others, but also without drastically increasing taxes. There¹s plenty of time for them to do it.²

State Representative Eileen Carney, D-Libby, said the ruling did not come as a surprise. She said Republicans had been shorting schools for years, creating the current problem that the next Legislature will be forced to solve.

³If we¹d funded schools the way we should have all along, we wouldn¹t have this problem,² Carney said. ³It¹s going to be a difficult session.²