Mo. Teachers Vow To File Suit To Fight Proposed Aid Cuts

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Missouri teachers' groups have announced that they will file suit to block Gov. John Ashcroft's proposal to cut $35 million from state education aid to fund new court-ordered expenditures for desegregation of the Kansas City schools.

The Missouri N.E.A. late last week formally submitted court papers challenging the constitutionality of the Governor's plans, and leaders of the Missouri State Teachers Association have indicated they will launch a similar effort.

The teachers' groups' actions are the indirect result of a decision handed down this summer by Federal District Judge Russell Clark, who ordered the state to pay an additional $71 million in desegregation costs by Oct. 1.

Governor Ashcroft warned this month that if the judge's order stands, half of the new money for Kansas City would come from the state's elementary and secondary foundation formula, with the balance coming from accounts for the University of Missouri and the state health department.

The state this month also appealed the judge's ruling, arguing that it contradicts a 1988 ruling that directed the state to pay $150 million to Kansas City by 1992. The state maintains that it reached that funding level in May.

Although Judge Clark last week agreed to let the state suspend payments to Kansas City until the appeal is heard, educators across the state are bracing for the worst, including the possibility that the cuts could force some districts into bankruptcy.

"The situation in Missouri schools is very, very serious right now," noted Bruce Moe, a spokesman for the M.S.T.A., an independent group.

Constitutional Bar Seen

The Missouri N.E.A. suit attacks Mr. Ashcrofts proposed cut on three grounds, according to Peggy Cochran, the group's assistant executive director.

The suit contends that the Missouri constitution prohibits the state government from reducing payments for its portion of mandated services, and bars the governor from reducing appropriations for a system of free public schools.

In addition, Ms. Cochran explained, the suit will cite a Missouri law that mandates how state school funds must be allocated on a monthly basis. If the Governor proceeds with his plans, she said, the monthly allocation in the second half of the year would fall below the minimum acceptable level.

Arguing along similar lines, the M.s.T.A. proposes to file a suit based on the premise that education funding approved by the legislature cannot be cut by the governor, except in times of emergency.

Representatives of teachers' groups and other educators point out that Missouri schools already are struggling to cope with the loss of $40 million in school aid withheld by the Governor this year as part of a $200 million reduction in state spending prompted by flagging revenues.

Although some districts were able to cope with the earlier round of austerity by freezing hiring, Mr. Moe said, that option may not exist if new cuts are ordered.

"Most of the districts have already entered into contracts," he said. "They've hired teachers and they've purchased materials."

Contractual obligations would seriously hamper districts' flexibility to cope with reduced revenue, he said.

"It's going to put districts in a very tough situation," he warned.

Closing Their Doors?

Some districts, already operating on razor-thin margins and, in many cases, recovering from a fiscal year in which large numbers dipped into reserve funds to cover costs, are facing the specter of bankruptcy, observers said.

"We are hearing reports that some districts are talking about closing their doors," said Brent Ghan, director of communications for the Missouri School Boards Association.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education already has been studying ways to head off bankruptcies, following reports that 16 of the state's 534 districts violated state law by running a deficit during 1990. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991 .)

Ms. Cochran suggested, however, that while districts may soon run into severe financial difficulties they are not likely simply to go out of existence. Instead, she said, they may take advantage of state laws that permit reorganization and consolidation.

One hope for reversing the potentially severe cuts lies in a tax measure that will appear on the state's Nov. 5 ballot.

Proposition B would earmark $165 million in new revenues in its first year to be distributed to schools through the foundation program.

But observers note that the measure faces an uncertain fate at the hands of the voters, and also restricts new spending until the legislature revises the state funding formula.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Page 18

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