Mont. Districts Reopen School-Finance Challenge

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Frustrated by what they see as the legislature's failure to provide adequate state aid, a group of low-wealth Montana school districts has launched a new round of the finance-equity challenge that led to the overturning of the state's school-funding system three years ago.

In a suit filed last month, the 65 districts charge that the legislature has not provided sufficient financial support to bring the state's foundation formula into compliance with a judge's order to equalize education spending.

Responding to a suit filed by many of the same districts named in the most recent complaint, District Judge Henry Loble in 1988 declared the school-finance system unconstitutionally inequitable. His decision was later upheld by the state supreme court.

In June 1989, lawmakers approved legislation aimed at revising the finance system "to fully address equalization of funding," including expenditures for transportation, retirement benefits, and capital improvements.

The new suit was filed by James H. Goetz, the Bozeman attorney who successfully argued the previous finance challenge.

In his brief, Mr. Goetz concedes that the new system "is an improvement" over the previous one. But, he argues, "substantial spending and mill-levy disparities still exist among the state's school districts" that violate the state's guarantee of "equality of educational opportunity."

The suit also contends that the inequities result in part from the legislature's unwillingness to "adequately fund the foundation program, thus forcing an excessive reliance" on local levies.

Representatives of the state education department have argued that the $879.5-million biennial budget approved this spring by the legislature will barely keep pace with inflation and will force districts to depend even more on local revenues to meet operating expenses.

The legislature this year approved extension of an income-tax surcharge that would have provided $24 million to schools over two years to help reduce reliance on local property taxes. But Gov. Stan Stephens successfully vetoed the measure, raising expectations that low-wealth districts would turn again to the courts. (See Education Week, May 8, 1991.)

The suit asks that the court declare both the present level of state aid and the school-finance system unconstitutional.--P.W.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 31

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Mont. Districts Reopen School-Finance Challenge
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