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Bartlett is at it again

September 24, 2003
By: Drew Bratcher
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The man whose efforts led to the largest tax increase in Missouri history sits behind stacks of paper, scattered, organized in a way that only he understands. He is serious, reserved, rehearsed. Every word out of his mouth is the result of ten test runs. He is unknown to most Missourians, yet few men have had more impact on education in Missouri.

Alex Bartlett, the lawyer representing more than 200 Missouri school districts in a challenge of the constitutionality of Missouri's school funding system, is at it again.

In the early 1990s Missouri schools were among the most disparate in the country. A string of court cases in the early 80s had forced the state to pour money into urban districts for the purpose of desegration, while resources for rural Missouri schools dissipated.

"We were starving slowly," said Gene Oakely, former superintendent for the Poplar Bluff district. "It was quiet desparation. Things had been getting bad for a long time, and we didn't see anything getting better."

Oakley and others decided they had had enough. Using the impetus from a San Antonio case in which a school district sued the state for failing to provide equal education and won, a group of Missouri superintendents representing 89 school districts formed the Committee for Education Equality. "We sort of went out there on faith," Oakley said, "we thought we would mount an effort."

They needed a lawyer, but more than a lawyer, someone with an understanding of education. They found Alex Bartlett. "Things just clicked," Bartlett said.

Bartlett was experienced in litigation involving the Missouri Constitution. He was well versed on school issues. His mother was a teacher, attending Central Missouri State University alongside her son.

"I think he has a certain passion for this, and that is exactly what you would look for in an attorney," said Larry Ewing, superintendent Fort Osage.

A sense of uncertainty permeated the trial in 1993. "It was a scary day," said Allan Crader, SMSU professor of school finance . "One of those things where you know that you are right in your own heart, but you don't know how it will come out." But any doubts were soon quelched by Bartlett's resolve in the courtroom.

His knowlegde of the Constitution and of Thomas Jefferson's essays on the value of education quelched the state's defense. "He was like a kid in a candy store," Crader said.

In three weeks Judge Byron Kinder had ruled that Missouri's then current funding system was unconstitutional. The legislature acted, producing Senate Bill 380, the Outstanding Schools Act which brought about a new school funding formula, financed by a $310 million tax increase.

Educators across the state were ecstatic. "From a teacher's perspective it was wonderful because it was a demonstration that somebody cared," Ewing said. Bartlett described the outcome as euphoric. "It was the most important case that I've ever had."

Anti-tax Republicans criticized the Democratic leadership for raising taxes without first going to the people of Missouri. "I had made a commitment to vote for a modest tax increase, but when they got up to $300 million, I could't go for it," Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon.

For a while things looked on the up and up. But as the 90s waged on and the economy declined, the funding formula was increasingly underfunded. As a result, 10 years after the landmark case, Alex Bartlett is busy getting his ducks in a row to once again challenge the constitutionality of Missouri's funding system.

"I have a suspicion that it's sort of like it was in 1993 when everyone just kind of sat back until courts forced us to do something," Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring. "And so it's a way of taking the pressure off of the leadership in all of these areas from dealing with a very hot potato."

Bartlett said that a lawsuit is needed to accomplish what needs to be done. "I say that with all respect to the legislature because I have a respect for the process, but I also know that last time legislators reacted positively."

Times are not the same. "I think it's probably worse, because in '93 we were coming into a boom, whereas at this point everybody is worried about a recession," Childers said.

Over 200 Missouri school districts have joined the CEE for the second round. "In the first case, most of the plaintiffs were small rural school districts," said Melody Daily, clinical professor of law at MU. "This time some large suburban school districts, such as Hazelwood in St. Louis, have joined the lawsuit."

"I think it's a more generally felt problem now than it was back in early 1990," Bartlett said.

There are new precendents as well. The primary issue in the 1993 case was the inequity of the school funding system. However, inadequacy has emerged as a greater concern as the effects of underfunding have been clearly seen. A Court of Appeals in New York early this year found that the New York system was unconstitutional on equity and adequacy grounds.

Questions remain about how to achieve adequate school funding. "I don't see how you can make significant changes in the formula without their being some increase in taxes to cover the shift," Russell said. However, a tax increase on the scale of 1993's is unlikely. Missouri adopted Amendment 4 in 1996, requiring voter approval anytime the legislature raises taxes by more than $50 million.

Superintendents advocate reinstating the former taxes. "The problem has to do with cuts, and not necessarily distribution," former Columbia superintendent Russell Thompson said. Republican leaders in a Interim Joint Committee on Education have advocated moving away from a property tax-based funding system to an income tax.

Bartlett is confident in his case, but realistic. "I think I am able to sit back and look at the situation more objectively than I could 10 years ago to know that there are no quick fixes."

The CEE is confident in their lawyer. "He is kind of a legend," Mexico superintendent Lloyd Little said.