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Michigan Districts Seek To Remove Barrier to Finance Suit

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A group of 117 Michigan school districts has asked a state court to eliminate a legal barrier that prevents it from challenging the constitutionality of the state's school-finance system.

The group, which includes the poorest districts in the state, filed suit in Wayne County Circuit Court Sept. 1, seeking the right to use public funds to sue the state.

If that "procedural roadblock" can be overcome, the districts will file a second suit challenging the school-aid formula itself, said John Jacobs, the group's attorney.

Two similar legal assaults on the system were mounted in recent years, although without success. But the districts' officials think the legal climate has changed in their favor since then, said Mr. Jacobs, citing the Kentucky Supreme Court's June decision declaring that state's entire system of school governance and finance invalid.

The districts that filed suit are members of the state school boards association's "in-formula caucus." Under the current finance system, "in-formula" districts are those that qualify for state aid due to their low property values; more affluent districts receive no state aid and are thus labeled "out-of-formula."

Approximately 375 of the state's 560 districts qualify for state aid, according to Richard Wilson, superintendent of the Brandon school district and chairman of the in-formula caucus.

The caucus contends the state aid system is unconstitutional because it has failed to narrow spending disparities between rich and poor districts. "We're looking for a method of distributing state resources that deals those resources equitably," said Mr. Wilson.

The state attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, and treasurer were named as defendants in the case. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment on the suit last week.

Ballot Measures

In a related development last week, state officials put the finishing touches on two competing school-finance proposals to be put before the voters on the Nov. 7 ballot.

After years of political deadlock over finance issues, the legislature decided last spring to let the voters decide whether and how much to raise taxes to pay for the schools. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

One of the ballot proposals would increase the state sales tax by half a cent, and dedicate the revenue to schools; the other would increase the sales tax by 2 cents, with half a cent going for the schools and and the remainder earmarked for local property-tax relief.

Legislative squabbles have continued over the issue, however, as a bipartisan panel ordered to work out the language of the ballot questions broke off talks in late August.

The panel agreed on the phrasing of the proposed constitutional amendments last week.--mn

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