Schools coalition plans to sue over $8M state funding glitch

2011-09-21T17:23:00Z 2011-09-22T00:13:31Z Schools coalition plans to sue over $8M state funding glitch

By MIKE DENNISON

Gazette State Bureau

The Billings Gazette
September 21, 2011 5:23 pm  • 

HELENA — An education group has decided to go to court in an effort to reinstate $8 million in state funds for Montana public schools that it says were erased in a legal-political glitch this spring.

“(Our) action will simply right a wrong and help ensure a permanent, predictable and reliable funding system for schools,” said Mark Lambrecht, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition.

The board of MQEC, which organized the lawsuit that led to the 2005 Montana Supreme Court ruling that said state funding of public schools was unconstitutionally inadequate, voted Tuesday to file its latest legal action.

MQEC members include school districts that serve two-thirds of Montana children and several school-related groups.

The lawsuit, which Lambrecht said should be filed within several weeks, will seek to reverse the combined results of language passed by the 2011 Legislature and a veto by Gov. Brian Schweitzer that will reduce state funding for schools by $8 million next year.

Lambrecht said some school districts in Montana already are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes because of tight budgets and a decrease in state funding, and that the lawsuit intends to head off more reductions next year.

The Legislature intended to fund schools at a higher level, and the contrary language that cut the funding goes against state law that ensures public schools get an inflationary increase in state funds, he said.

MQEC’s planned legal action focuses on the result of a May 5 veto by Schweitzer of House Bill 316, 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 a 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. He also criticized Republican lawmakers for tying the two issues together.

“It comes as no surprise that the K-12 community is objecting to being held hostage by this past Legislature,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Sarah Elliott, said Wednesday. “Governor Schweitzer warned legislative leadership not to fund our schools on contingencies and they agreed not to and then did so anyway.”

Lambrecht said the MQEC lawsuit will contend that the state law requiring schools to get an inflationary increase in state funds each year has been violated by the contingency language that led to the $8 million reduction.

The school-funding and main budget bill passed by the 2011 Legislature said schools are supposed to get a 1 percent increase in state funds this year and a 2.43 percent increase next year. The contingency language and veto reduced the second-year increase to 1.6 percent.

Even with the 1 percent increase this year, schools are getting slightly less state money than last year, because the “base” funding was reduced.

“Unless the language can be fixed, funding that was approved by the Montana Legislature cannot be distributed as intended to Montana’s public schools,” MQEC said in a statement released Wednesday.

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