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Boone County school districts considering lawsuit

October 29, 2003
By: Drew Bratcher
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -Boone County school districts are considering joining more than 200 Missouri school districts set to challenge the state's K-12 funding system.

While none of the county's six school districts have come to a decision, the issue is before school boards across the county.

Thomas Baugh, Hallsville superintendent, supports the planned suit. "The amount of per-pupil funding given to kids in the richest and poorest districts in the state are not even close, and getting worse," Baugh said.

The Hallsville school board has tabled the issue and revisited it twice. "Their hope is that the legislature will see the inequities of what's occurring with funding and correct them, but I'm not so sure it won't take litigation to get that done," said Baugh. Baugh's sentiments are shared by many superintendents and legislators alike.

Bill View, superintendent for Harrisburg, said that for now his district is not going to participate in the planned suit. "I'm not 100% sure that school districts need to be involved in lawsuits over those issues," View said. "I think it's the legislator's job, and sooner or later they are going to be forced to do something with or without a lawsuit."

Alex Bartlett, the attorney preparing the suit, has broadened its appeal to districts across the state by adding the issue of adequacy of funding to the suit--charging that the state is not providing enough money to education.

In 1993, Bartlett led a group of 89 school districts in a successful challenge of Missouri's funding system. The courts found that the formula used to fund local schools led to inequities in the quality of education across the state.

The addition of adequacy has caught the attention of Boone County school officials. "Equity is in the eye of the beholder," said Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent of Columbia schools. "But when you talk about what is the floor-level of adequate funding to meet laws like special education laws and No-Child Left Behind, that's a different concept." Cowherd said that the Columbia school board will discuss the suit at length in November.

A recent study presented before a joint interim committee on education in St. Joseph found that $913 million more was needed to fund Missouri schools adequately. On October 27, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education submitted a request for a $820.2 million increase for the next fiscal year.

Budget withholdings from local schools in Missouri have led districts across the state that are heavily dependent on state aid to question the constitutionality of the current school funding system. Article IX, Sections 1 and 2 of the Missouri Constitution promises equal education to all Missouri students.

However, as budget withholdings have been made, a disparency in funding has developed between schools with more local wealth and higher property taxes, and those heavily dependent on state money.

Baugh said that compared to districts across the state, Boone County districts are at or above the state average. "We've been a growing district and have strict management by our school board, and we were able to give raises to people and have not laid off people unlike districts across the state," said Baugh.

Residents of Centralia approved a property tax increase in April 2002. "We are lucky to have good local revenue resources that reduce our dependence on state aid," said Glenn Brown, Centralia superintendent.

While Boone County districts are insulated from the full brunt of withholdings by local money and other factors, superintendents are concerned about future withholdings. "I have great fears," Brown said. "We haven't had to lay off any personnel, but at the same time we haven't been able to add personnel to match the increase in class sizes."

The Centralia school board recently heard a presentation about the lawsuit, and while no action was taken, Brown said that it was clear that it was an issue to be taken up on the November agenda.

Mitch Holbrook, superintendent for Ashland, said that the board has not yet addressed the lawsuit one way or the other.