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School funding ruling awaited

School funding ruling awaited

HELENA - Montana Supreme Court Justice Karla Gray told Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, on Wednesday that the high court is doing its best to issue a full opinion in the school funding lawsuit quickly.

Gray's comments came after Keenan hand-delivered a letter to her Wednesday, asking when the 2005 Legislature can expect the court's final ruling in the education case. In November, the Supreme Court issued a three-page ruling that declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, but did not elaborate.

"In some ways, we're groping to fulfill a Supreme Court decision based on a District Court decision without any specifics," Keenan said. "Maybe I'm overstepping my bounds a little bit, but I don't see anything happening."

Gray couldn't say when the full decision would be released.

"I told him we would issue the opinion as quickly as possible," Gray said. "I told him we do understand their frustration that they don't have an opinion yet. We're doing the best we can. No one should want us to rush out opinions on issues of such huge consequence."

A host of school districts, education organizations and parents sued the state in 2002 over the state's school funding system. Helena District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock found the system unconstitutional in April 2004. The state appealed the ruling in June, and the state Supreme Court upheld Sherlock's decision in November.

The Supreme Court told the Legislature to define the kind of "quality" school system Montana's public school students are entitled to, build a system to deliver that quality and then fund it.

The court didn't give the Legislature any more instructions, but did give them until Oct. 1 to come up with a fix.

"We have little direction, indeed no actual input from the court on the best legal approach to resolving the school funding crisis," Keenan wrote in his letter. "How can we be expected to address the concerns of the court without full knowledge of those concerns?"

Rep. Monica Lindeen, D-Huntley, said the lack of a full opinion isn't hampering legislative efforts to solve the problem. Lindeen is chairwoman of the House Select Education Committee and a subcommittee specifically working to define "quality" education. Lindeen said the subcommittee probably will decide on a definition by the end of this week.

"I think it's pretty clear what we need to do," she said.

Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said he expects the 2005 Legislature to come up with a new school funding formula before the session concludes at the end of April.

The Senate already has approved the governor's plan to increase state spending on education by $70 million over the next two years.

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