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Three area school districts part of lawsuit

Three St. Francois County school districts are part of a lawsuit that went to trial this week to change the state’s funding formula for public schools.

The Committee for Educational Equality (CEE), which initially filed the law suit three years ago, began its case in court on Wednesday in Jefferson City. The case is expected to take about six weeks.

Bismarck, Central and West County school districts are among CEE’s 243 districts. CEE consists of nearly half the state’s 524 districts and represents more than 340,000 students in Missouri.

In addition to the school districts, seven parents and five students are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The case is Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, 04CV323022.

The suit is against the State of Missouri, (former) State Treasurer Nancy Farmer, the state’s board of education, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner of Education D. Kent King, and Attorney General Jay Nixon.

The lawsuit contends that the state has violated the equal protection rights of districts, students and parents by not making sure through its funding formula that poorer districts have comparable resources as richer districts.

By failure to ensure equity, the CEE claims, the state has failed to protect children’s &#8220basic and fundamental constitutional right” to &#8220adequate and proper free public education.”

The disparity is compounded by the &#8220No Child Left Behind” requirements that apply to all school children across the country. Districts with high assessment values and plenty of businesses have the local funding to bring in top teachers, up-to-date equipment and new programs to help students progress. Those tools are necessary for all Missouri students if they are to compete against other districts in this state and across the country, said West County Superintendent Stacey Stevens.

&#8220If you look at the average per pupil spending in the state of Missouri, it is very low when compared to the rest of the country,” Stevens said. &#8220Is it fair for a school district like Festus ($ 5,039.17 per pupil in FY 2005) to have the same expectations as Clayton ($13,845.84 per pupil in FY 2005)? How will our students compete against those in other states?

Missouri will spend approximately $2.7 billion this year in aid to schools. The state claims it has met the constitutional requirement to spend one-fourth of its revenue on education.

But CEE is asking Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan to declare the funding formula unconstitutional, prevent the state from using it any further and require the state to come up with a formula that is adequate, equitable and ensures that every child in Missouri has equal and adequate educational opportunity regardless of local resources in his/her district.

&#8220A student in my district can’t help it that we don’t have a real high assessment value or a lot of business,” Stevens said.

Faulty formula?

This is not the first time the state’s funding formula has been scrutinized in court. In 1993, that formula was ruled unconstitutional. Legislators passed a tax increase and changed the formula.

The current formula was announced in 2005. Under it, state allotments to public schools are based on a minimum operating levy of $3.43, up from the previous minimum of $2.75. The difference between the district’s actual operating levy and the $3.43 is not funded by the state, Rep. Brad Robinson, D-Bonne Terre explained when the new formula was approved, he did not vote in favor of the change.

The state recommends that at least $6,117 should be spent on every child this year. State funds, in theory, make up the difference for districts whose local funding falls below that requirement. However, the tax levy is one of many factors that can reduce the state’s amount, Stevens said.

Other factors include the number of free and reduced lunches and special services, said Farmington’s superintendent, Dr. W. L. Sanders.

Districts may spend over the state’s recommended level if it has a lot of local revenue.

According to the 2005 figures for annual expenditures per pupil on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site ( ), the Diamond R-IV school district had the lowest expenditures per pupil with an annual amount of $4,704.11. The highest on the list was the St. Louis county’s Special School District, with $106,982.37. The second highest was the Gorin R-III School District, which spent $15,251.28 per pupil.

In St. Francois County, annual expenditures per pupil were: West County $5,875.29; per student, North County spent $6,027.69, Farmington spent $6,391.25, Bismarck spent $6,427.03, and Central spent $6,776.09.

&#8220There are cost of living differences between rural and metropolitan areas,” Stevens said. &#8220But the difference shouldn’t be that much.”

Inequity of resources

The lawsuit claims that the disparity in expenditures caused by the funding formula &#8220…perpetuates the misconception that children educated in lower property wealth per student districts can receive quality educational opportunities for less money than the children in districts which have higher property wealth.”

In addition, the suit continues, it deprives children in the CEE districts opportunities such as: greater availability of courses, programs and support services; more effective and experienced teachers and smaller class sizes; excellent school buildings and learning environments; adequate computers, laboratory equipment and other technical resources; adequate transportation costs; and the ability to fully participate in state and federal programs that are directed toward educational innovations.

Given the academic demands placed on students and districts by the &#8220No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” depriving students of the money for additional resources violates the equal opportunities and equal protection and procedural and substantive due process provisions of the Missouri and United States constitutions, CEE contends.

Solution unclear

One concern among some districts is the lack of a defined solution to resolve the problem.

A group of 26 school districts, called Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, intervened in the lawsuit and their concerns were heard in court this week. The Coalition agrees with CEE that the funding formula is flawed, but they say the blame lies on assessments in rural areas, Stevens said.

&#8220They say that the urban assessments are more accurate, and the rural assessments are too low,” Stevens explained. &#8220They say that if the rural districts had more accurate assessments, they would have more money.”

Farmington and North County school districts did not join the lawsuit. North County Superintendent Yancy Poorman was not in the district when the issue arose and is not sure why North County chose not to join the CEE.

&#8220It isn’t a topic that has been discussed since I’ve been here,” Poorman said.

Sanders said Farmington declined to join the lawsuit because it is unclear what the resolution might be.

&#8220Farmington enjoys a little better financial situation than other districts in the area and we have a fairly fast-growing tax base,” Sanders said. &#8220We’re not a rich district and we’re not a poor district. Depending on the new system, the solution may be unfavorable to our district.”

Sanders, who is from Texas, said his former state has had many of these types of lawsuits.

&#8220What happened there was, they invoked a Robin Hood system,” he said. &#8220Districts that were more affluent had to send part of their local revenue back to the state.

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