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Superintendents threaten lawsuit against state

April 28, 2003
By: Melissa Maynard
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Only weeks after State Auditor Claire McCaskill released an audit giving Missouri's schools a grade of "F" in equity, superintendents from around the state echoed this sentiment, threatening to sue the state.

In 1993, a group of 60 school districts successfully challenged the state's method for determining aid for schools, bringing about the creation of the current system.

The current formula uses factors such as enrollment, numbers of low-income students, and local property tax levies to determine the amount of aid that will be allotted to each school. Its goal is to provide more money to the schools with the greatest need.

But now, as the state is forced amidst budget woes to cut back on the funding of the formula, Alex Bartlett, the lawyer who successfully tried the 1993 case, said that state is doing an even worst job of providing a quality education to all of its citizens.

"We have now a formula that is out of whack," Bartlett said. "The duty is upon the General Assembly and state of Missourians to provide for the education of all school children. It is not upon local districts."

Bartlett said that the state is required by the constitution to make education a priority and to provide an "equitable and adequate" education to its citizens, and that it is failing to do so.

However, House Budget Chair Carl Beaden, R- St. Charles, said the state will be unlikely to give in to the pressures of the educators.

"If we ran every time that we thought we were going to get sued, we wouldn't be able to do anything around here, so I don't think we can operate that way," he said.

Former state representative Gene Oakley, who also helped lead the 1993 lawsuit against the state, said that any additional cuts to education will devastate rural school districts, as they are already struggling to provide basic services.

"Now the Legislature seems hell-bent on tearing down the educational system," Oakley said. "Without proper funding, you're going to have programs, particularly in the southern half of this state, that have taken 15 years to put into place, and they're going to be torn down in one year. That is a disgrace."

Oakley pointed to the descrepancy between McDonald County, where the state allots $4,500 per pupil, and Clayton County, where the state allots $13,700 per pupil.

"The judge said of the case in 93' that the quality of schools ranged from the golden to the God-awful," he said. " Well, folks, we're there again today."

Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring, has said that he plans to work with other legislators and educators to look into a possible overhaul of the current system.

"It's very clear that the foundation formula is flawed, that it is really broken, and that it needs to be replaced," Childers said. "And until the Governor and the legislators come out and decide to do something about it, I think we're going to continue with this problem."

But Childers and other legislators, such as Senate Appropriations Chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon, agreed that not much could be done to improve the situation as they wrap up the current session, as both time and resources are severely limited.

"Unless someone just -- by a stroke of genious -- has come up with a sudden pot of money which I haven't heard about, there isn't even any way to even get anymore money into the budget to speak of," Russell said.