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Lawsuit seeks to overturn education funding formula

Neither the Lindbergh nor the Mehlville school district are part of a recently filed lawsuit challenging the state's education funding formula.

But the two south county districts that have been "slowly bleeding" ever since the formula's inception in 1993 still plan to be involved with the suit, according to administrators from both districts.

The Committee for Educational Equality, which represents 243 Missouri school districts with more than 340,000 students, filed its suit against the state of Missouri Jan. 6, challenging the state's method for funding public schools and asking that the method be declared unconstitutional because it does not distribute funds equally or adequately.

Mehlville and Lindbergh's names are missing from the list of 13 St. Louis-area school districts that have joined the Committee for Educational Equality — but those districts primarily are districts on the formula, according to Pat Lanane, assistant superintendent of business services for the Lindbergh School District.

State funds to hold-harmless districts, such as Mehlville and Lindbergh, have been frozen at the same level since 1993. The majority of hold-harmless districts' funding, under the current formula, comes from local property tax revenue, while districts on the formula typically receive more in state aid.

However, Committee for Educational Equality representatives claim that recent withholdings severely have hurt districts on the formula.

"This lawsuit against the General Assembly is unfortunate but not unexpected. I do not want the courts running our schools, but when the Legislature fails to satisfy its constitutional duties, the school districts are left with no alternative," Gov. Bob Holden stated in a Jan. 6 press release. "I would prefer that the Legislature adequately fund education so that the state does not have to defend lawsuits."

About 18 districts in the St. Louis area, including Lindbergh and Mehlville, are involved with the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, which supports the current lawsuit, but disagrees with some changes the Committee for Educational Equality is pushing.

The Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, primarily comprised of hold-harmless districts, represents 60 school districts, amounting to about 250,000 students.

The disagreement arises in the groups' different definitions of equity, Lanane told the Call. The Committee for Educational Equality would like to see one number, one dollar amount distributed to each Missouri student, which is not a fair solution, the Lindbergh administrator said.

While many hold-harmless schools agree that the current formula does not distribute money fairly to Missouri schools, according to a Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools press release, the coalition believes the cost of living and the Consumer Price Index for each area need to be considered to determine what funding is fair and adequate for each district. The release states that equity is to be defined in terms of educational opportunity and not equal dollars.

"We have a great deal in common with them (the Committee for Educational Equality)," Lanane said. "But when you look at areas such as metro St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Charles — because of cost of living, the cost to educate is going to be much different as opposed to some out-state schools. To give equal resources to districts with unequal needs is, I'm sorry, unequitable to us."

The coalition most likely, Lanane said, will enter into the lawsuit as a third party in an intervener status, echoing the groups' many common contentions with the current formula, but being a third party will allow hold-harmless districts to promote their own interests.

"We'll be able to tell our own story as another party in the lawsuit," he said, noting the state will serve as the defendant and the Committee for Educational Equality will serve as the plaintiff.

He said he and administrators from other hold-harmless school districts are afraid if the Committee for Educational Equality is successful and one dollar amount is established for each pupil, then the state will adopt a "Robin Hood'' strategy — taking money from the rich and giving to the poor.

"We are most worried about, if we try to go to some sort of situation where there is a set amount, with a feel of absolute equity of dollars spent per pupil, those dollars will have to come from areas like St. Louis County, which very well could mean the shifting of the tax burden from out-state Missouri to St. Louis. Our goal is to stop that shift,'' Lanane said.

The Mehlville School District, which is the fiscal agent for the Coalition for Funding Excellent Schools, was scheduled to participate in a conference call with other coalition officials Monday — after the Call went to press — to discuss and finalize the direction the group will take — to either intervene, declare itself a friend of the court or to become a part of the lawsuit.

"Initially, not only are we looking at the suit ... but we're working with our attorneys to see how we can intervene or how we can provide information to the court," Mehlville Superintendent Tim Ricker told the Call.

He said each of the districts involved in the group soon will go back to its board of education and formally ask how that district would like to be involved with the lawsuit.

"Although most of the boards have already, through resolutions, said, 'We're in this coalition, you guys go ahead and do what we need to do to get the funding for our kids,'" Ricker said. "Our board's been very clear. They want us in the middle of this."

Ricker pointed out that larger districts on the formula, such as the Francis Howell School District, are afraid that they will become hold-harmless districts, after losing so much money to withholdings, and also are joining the coalition.

"Philosophically the equity issue we agree on. Philosophically the adequacy issue we agree on," Ricker said of the Committee for Educational Excellence and the group in which his district is a member, the Coalition for Funding Excellent Schools. "But if you have to give on one or the other, my personal opinion is that the CEE group will work toward equity and the CFES will work toward equity and adequacy because if there's not new revenue, then you're going to rob Peter to pay Paul, you're going to redistribute the money that you have. And the only way to do that is to take from some and to give to others."

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