HELENA — State funding of schools catapulted back into the public spotlight Tuesday as the coalition that sued over the issue three years ago filed court papers saying the 2005 Legislature's action fell short of adequately funding public schools in Montana.
The coalition of school districts, unions, education groups and individuals said more needed to be done to meet court orders requiring the state to define and fund "quality education."
The coalition said it's willing to work with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the 2007 Legislature to address shortfalls in school funding.
"We think it would be wonderful if we never had to go back in court again," said Tom Cotton, a Deer Lodge school superintendent and president of the Montana Quality Education Coalition.
But the group asked state District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena to schedule a court hearing after the 2007 Legislature, in case the response isn't adequate.
The filing also included statements from school officials in Billings, Helena, East Helena, Columbia Falls and White Sulphur Springs who outlined how their districts still face serious problems in meeting basic standards.
"We continue to struggle to find teachers in math, science, home economics, auto mechanics and foreign languages," wrote Dan Martin, a Billings school official. "The district has not increased its teacher supply budget for 10 years."
The coalition also said it has hired a consultant to devise a "remedy plan" on how the state should fund schools and resolve the lawsuit.
"We really believe this (can) become the road map that will allow us to provide adequate funding all across the state," said Bruce Messinger, superintendent of schools in Helena.
Judy Beck, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike McGrath, said McGrath's office will consult with Schweitzer, legislative leaders and other state officials on how to respond to Tuesday's court filing.
"As far as we're concerned, the litigation is concluded," she said.
Schweitzer also has said he believes action by the 2005 Legislature fully addressed orders by Sherlock and the state Supreme Court, which said the state was failing to properly fund public schools.
The 2005 Legislature, in regular and special sessions, increased ongoing state funds for public schools by about $120 million over two years, an increase of nearly 11 percent. It also added $40 million in one-time funds, which could be used to help pay for energy and building maintenance.
It was the largest increase in 14 years, but it came after years of minimal or no increases in state funding for schools — a trend that led the coalition to sue in 2003, saying the state had failed its constitutional obligation to finance a basic, quality education.
Instead, the state had shifted more of the burden for financing schools onto local property taxpayers, the lawsuit said.
In Tuesday's filing, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the 2005 Legislature failed in two main areas: It did not determine the cost of a "basic system of free, quality public schools," as defined in state law, and it did not devise a plan to pay for it.
The courts said the Legislature must fund schools based on the cost of meeting basic standards for a quality education.
While the Legislature approved more state money for schools, it arrived at the amount as it has for the past 35 years, wrote coalition attorney Jim Molloy: It made a political decision on how much money is available, rather than determining what a quality education costs.
"In other words, funding decisions were made by the 'political' method, not based on empirical or cost-based analyses," Molloy wrote.
Unless that method is abandoned, schools simply will face budget cuts when the state budget falls on leaner times, he said.
Those cuts will be "unrelated to costs or needs" and therefore are "not constitutionally permissible," Molloy said.
The Schweitzer administration has said it will support state funding for full-day kindergarten next year, an estimated expense of about $25 million over two years. Beyond that proposal, however, the administration has made no commitment on more funding for schools.