Montana Teachers, Parents File School Aid Lawsuit

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Montana's teachers' union has joined 11 school districts and a group of parents in a lawsuit against the state, saying it doesn't spend enough on schools for students to receive the high-quality education guaranteed by the state constitution.

"We'd like the court to agree with us that the legislature has a constitutional obligation to provide for a quality education," said Eric Feaver, the president of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. "Right now, programs are being cut, schools are being closed, and teachers are being lost because we don't have enough money. It appears that money is being denied us by the state."

Along with the teachers' union and seven parents, the elementary and high school districts of East Helena, Helena, Billings, White Sulphur Springs, and Troy are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 3.

Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath will defend the state in the lawsuit, but currently has no comment on its substance, said Lynn Solomon, a public-information officer for Mr. McGrath. She noted that the state is required to file a response to the lawsuit by mid-October.

This lawsuit isn't the first concerning school financing in the state. In 1987, long before the 2000 merger between the MEA and AFT, the MEA sued the state, arguing that schools weren't financed equitably. The Montana Supreme Court, in a 1989 ruling, told the legislature to fix the problem. One way lawmakers attempted to do so was to set limits for the maximum amount of money wealthier districts could spend on schooling.

The current lawsuit charges that the legislature's remedies have not addressed "the fundamental and structural deficiencies that continue to exist in Montana's school funding system."

Last year, two Montana school board members sued the state over its school finance system. They charged that Montana's system of requiring taxpayers in some communities to pay more for schooling than others did was unfair. ("Lawsuit Claims Montana School Finance System Is Unfair," June 13, 2001.) A Montana district court dismissed the case, but the two trustees who had filed it—Conrad F. Stroebe, a trustee for the Billings school district, and his wife Teresa M. Stroebe, a trustee for the Lockwood School District 26—are appealing the dismissal.

Budget Cutbacks

The current school funding suit has been filed at a time when the state is cutting back spending on K-12 education because of declining revenues.

The legislature met last month in a special session to trim the budget. Before the session began, Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, asked legislators to cut the $503 million K-12 budget for fiscal 2003 by $11 million. In the end, the legislature cut it by $5.7 million.

Those cuts were mostly in school technology and construction, according to Joe Lamson, the legislative director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Still, schools are slated to receive $14 million less in fiscal 2003 than the previous year because student enrollment has dropped, Mr. Lamson added.

The decline in aid is making it difficult for schools to do their job, said Gene R. Jerussi, a Billings school board member.

Montana's K- 12 public school enrollment dropped by 10,000 students—to 152,000—between the fall of 1997 and the fall of 2000, according to federal data.

"Billings joined in [the lawsuit] because we find ourselves continually in a bad spot when it comes to providing our 15,000-plus students with a quality education," Mr. Jerussi said. "What should the state's role be in financing education? If the state is doing its share under the Montana Constitution, we need to know that.

"If it's not," he continued, "we need to know that, and the state can respond accordingly and step up to the plate."

The lawsuit charges that the state pays for K-12 education based on how much money it deems is available during each biennium, rather than based on a determination of how much it costs to provide that education. It argues that the practice violates a mandate of the state constitution that "the legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools."

Rep. Gay Ann Masolo, a Republican who heads the House education committee, is not pleased that educators have resorted to a lawsuit as a means of trying to solve the school funding problems.

"I'm disappointed they're doing a lawsuit because that money is lost to education," she said. "That money is spent on lawyers."

Legislators, she said, are aware that the state's system of basing school funding on student enrollment is not working and are studying the problem. They expect to offer proposals on how to fix the problem in the legislative session that begins in January.

Montana's income, which comes primarily from mining, timber, and agriculture, has dropped dramatically in recent years. At the same time, Montanans don't want to have their taxes raised, Ms. Masolo added.

"We do have a problem," she said, "but I don't think we're the only state with a problem."

Vol. 22, Issue 3, Pages 17, 20

Published in Print: September 18, 2002, as Montana Teachers, Parents File School Aid Lawsuit
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This story erroneously states that a previously filed lawsuit was dismissed. The state of Montana asked a state district judge to dismiss that 2001 suit, but the judge hasn't yet ruled on the matter.

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