HELENA — A judge doesn't need to review again whether the state is providing enough money for schools in Montana, because the 2005 Legislature approved a significant increase in state funds, a state lawyer said Monday.
"This case is moot," wrote Assistant Attorney General Ali Bovingdon.
Bovingdon's argument filed in state District Court opposes a request by the original lawsuit's plaintiffs for a hearing next year.
They asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena to hold the hearing in spring 2007 to assess whether funding approved by the 2005 and 2007 legislatures responds to his 2004 court order that said school funding is inadequate.
Bovingdon said school funding will have significantly changed by then, and that if the plaintiffs still believe the school funding system is unconstitutional, they can file another lawsuit. The original suit is no longer relevant, she said.
Sherlock will decide whether another hearing should be held on the original lawsuit after the 2007 Legislature.
The coalition of schools, parents, unions and education groups that sued over school funding asked for the hearing, saying the state has yet to adequately fund a "quality education," as guaranteed by the state constitution.
They said the hearing after the 2007 Legislature can assess whether action by lawmakers and the Schweitzer administration next year has addressed the original court order.
"It isn't just about allocating some money," said Helena Superintendent of Schools Bruce Messinger, a spokesman for the coalition. "It's about identifying the cost of a quality education and finding adequate money to satisfy that definition.
"We don't see anything in (Monday's argument) that would cause the judge to agree that this has been satisfied."
The coalition filed its hearing request two weeks ago. The request included statements from a half-dozen school districts across the state, saying that despite a healthy increase in state funding this year and next, public schools still are unable to adequately fund a "quality education" as defined by law.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Mike McGrath have said they believe that action by the 2005 Legislature addressed the issue, and that the lawsuit is settled.
Bovingdon said the 2005 Legislature approved $282 million in new "education-related appropriations," including $81 million in additional ongoing annual funding.
She called the request for a hearing and its accompanying claims a "renewed challenge to ongoing reforms" of the school-funding system. The request should be rejected because the law and funding have been decisively changed, so the challenge is moot, she said.
The $282 million figure includes a one-time $100 million deposit into the Teachers Retirement System, which faces a potential deficit. It also includes an inflationary increase that was in state law when the lawsuit was filed.
Messinger said schools recognize the value of bailing out the financially shaky Teachers Retirement System, but that it shouldn't be included in discussions about addressing the lawsuit.
"It really doesn't have anything to do with our original claim of inadequacy of funding in providing services to students," he said.
Messinger said the 2005 Legislature defined a quality education, but still hasn't figured the cost of that education or laid out a plan to meet those costs.
"In our filing (two weeks ago), we tried to show the separation between what is needed and what (was provided)," he said. "There needs to be a larger investment to provide the services to students who are at risk."