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Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as School Aid Legal Battles Flare in La., Mo.

School Aid Legal Battles Flare in La., Mo.

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Louisiana and Missouri are the targets of lawsuits by groups of school districts that want those states to overhaul their school funding formulas.

School boards from eight Louisiana districts filed two civil suits in a state court last month in the hope of pressuring the legislature to help build and maintain school facilities. The plaintiffs contend that their buildings have deteriorated to the point of being unsafe.

They want about $140 million in the suits, or some $300 per student, added to the state's K-12 budget, which totals about $2.5 billion this fiscal year.

In Missouri, the Committee for Educational Equality, a group made up of 243 of the state's 520 districts, sued the state last week, alleging the finance system violates the state constitution. The group, made up of many of the same school districts, filed a similar suit in 1990 that led to the current formula, which has been in place since 1993.

The new lawsuit, filed Jan. 6 in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City, follows a 2003 report by the state auditor that said the system has become even more unfair since then. In 2002, the highest total per- student spending by a Missouri district was almost three times that of the lowest spender: $13,748 vs. $4,561.

"It's a tremendous difference in spending between the richest and poorest districts," said Tyler Laney, the superintendent of the 680-student Crane district, which spends a total of $6,000 per student. "It's an insult to students in poor districts in the state."

Mr. Laney said that Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, and the Republican- controlled legislature were embroiled in partisan fights and had not focused on education spending.

Missouri Speaker of the House Catherine L. Hanaway disagreed. "The House of Representatives has been working diligently to address concerns about equity in the state's school funding formula by creating an interim committee to study the issue," she said.

Compromise Sought

Carey T. Jones, a Denham Springs, La., lawyer, represents the Louisiana districts that filed the two suits against their state on Dec. 5 in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish. He said the school finance formula does not meet state constitutional standards, which require the state to provide a minimum foundation of funds to districts. The state does not provide money specifically to build, renovate, and maintain facilities.

"Our argument is, any minimum funding has to include school buildings," Mr. Jones said.

The eight districts involved in the lawsuits, he said, face different issues, however. Livingston Parish, for instance, is a 20,000-student district near Baton Rouge that is seeing tremendous growth but cannot raise enough money to build new schools. Union Parish, a 4,500-student district on the state's northern border, wants to consolidate 10 schools into four new schools in order to offer better academic programs.

Most of the school buildings in the eight districts do not meet current building codes for matters such as fire safety and access for people with disabilities. "It's pretty scary to put kids in buildings like that," Mr. Jones said.

Some state leaders say the current formula is fine.

Rep. Carl N. Crane, the chairman of the House education committee, said the state pays 65 percent of education costs, and that funding has been steadily increasing. Louisiana also has a formula, he said, that gives additional funding to poorer districts, which can bring the state's portion to as high as 85 percent of a district's education costs.

"The state wants to assist local districts in every way possible," said Mr. Crane, a Republican. But the districts "have to assume some responsibility."

Some districts have had bond measures rejected by their residents who do not want to pay higher taxes, Mr. Crane said. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the state to contribute more money in the current uncertain economy, he added.

The Louisiana state board of education issued a written response to the lawsuits: "Although the board is sympathetic with the financial burdens experienced by local school districts, the board believes the suits are without merit and should be dismissed."

Louisiana is one of only 12 states that do not offer aid specifically for school construction, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Although local districts across the nation historically have been responsible for school facility costs, some states have begun providing facility funding in recent years because of deteriorating conditions and increasing enrollments, or because of threats from lawsuits, said Kathy Christie, an ECS policy analyst.

Mr. Jones said he was hopeful that officials of the Louisiana districts could meet with state education leaders in coming weeks to resolve the issue. Because of the state's economic situation, he expects that any new funds would have to be phased in over several years.

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Page 16

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