Education coalition again files suit against state over school funding


HELENA - The coalition behind the 2002 lawsuit that challenged Montana's public school funding system as inadequate was back in court Friday, asking a judge to order the state to comply with a law requiring inflationary funding increases for schools.

The lawsuit, filed in state District Court at Helena, seeks to undo an $8 million funding glitch that occurred in the wake of Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto of a bill largely unrelated to school funding.

Schweitzer's veto of House Bill 316 triggered language in the 2011 Legislature's main school finance bill that ended up cutting state funding for schools by $8 million next year.

"Both the Legislature and Gov. Schweitzer intended to provide inflationary funding for schools," said Mark Lambrecht, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition. "This situation significantly reduced the amount of funding available to Montana's public schools."

Friday's lawsuit came as no surprise, as the coalition's board voted in September to go to court over the issue.

MQEC members include several Montana education groups, as well as school districts with two-thirds of Montana's K-12 students. It organized the 2002 lawsuit that led to the 2005 Montana Supreme Court ruling that said state funding of public schools was unconstitutionally inadequate.

Friday's lawsuit referenced the original lawsuit and decision, noting that subsequent legislatures passed laws that defined a "basic system of free, quality public schools" and created a "self-executing" funding formula that includes annual, inflationary adjustments of state money for schools.

While the state provides only about half the money to run public schools - the rest comes from local property taxes and the federal government - the state funding system essentially dictates the budget levels for schools statewide.

The new lawsuit said while the 2011 Legislature approved bills that provided for a two-year, 3.43 percent inflationary increase in state funding, schools will get only a 2.6 percent increase because of the governor's veto. That cut would reduce state funds for schools by $8 million next fall.

The suit asked the District Court to "compel the state to take specific steps to provide Montana public schools with the ... mandated inflationary adjustments that are required by law."

Schweitzer's veto killed HB316, which would have transferred $9 million from various earmarked revenue sources into the state treasury, to help balance the 2012-13 state budget.

A week earlier, House Republicans had inserted language into the session's major school-funding bill that said if the HB316 money wasn't approved, school funding for 2012 would be cut by $8 million.

Republicans said they wanted some assurance that tourism and mining money in HB316 would help fund schools, just as some local oil-and-gas funds had been diverted for schools.

Schweitzer, when vetoing the bill, said the tourism money shouldn't be diverted when the state treasury was flush with money. He also criticized Republican lawmakers for tying the two issues together.

The Schweitzer administration declined comment Friday.

In August, MQEC paid for a telephone survey of 501 Montanans on the school-funding issue. It explained the inflationary adjustment in law, and asked those surveyed whether they would support legal action by the schools to enforce that provision. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said they would "most likely" support such an action.

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