Lawsuit planned to recoup budget cuts 

Lawsuit over school funding

After the slash-and-burn budget cuts of last month’s special legislative session, public schools throughout Montana have found themselves with $5 million missing from their coffers—with deeper cuts expected after the 2003 session. While some state agencies search for ways to get by with less, a coalition of teachers, administrators and parents from school districts throughout Montana plans on forcing the Legislature to come up with more. The Montana Quality Education Coalition (MQEC) has announced plans to file a lawsuit Sept. 3 charging that the government has failed to maintain the level of education guaranteed to state citizens by the Montana Constitution. “We believe we have one of the strongest educational articles in the United States,” says Jim Molloy, legal council for MQEC. “And we are confident that we can prove Montana is not meeting the expectations that the framers of the constitution established through the Article X.”

Article X of the Montana Constitution ensures “a system of education that will develop the full educational potential of each person.” But according to MQEC, there is a severe teachers shortage, schools are shutting down, and 157 school districts are not meeting state accreditation standards.

While detractors contend the lawsuit’s timing was planned to coincide with election campaigning, Molloy says that’s untrue.

“Contrary to what people may be hearing from legislators or the governor’s office, there is no political strategy at all to the timing,” he says.

Governor Judy Martz said her office is willing to discuss solutions with the coalition and would prefer it postpones legal action.

“I wish they would work with us instead of put up a wall where it is all the attorneys talking instead of the people involved in education,” says Martz.

“Are they afraid of the suit?” counters Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest union, representing teachers and other government employees in education. “I don’t think so. But it does annoy them because there is a good possibility the court will go along with us and tell the Legislature to find the money.”

Not all the school districts in the coalition support using membership dues to fund the lawsuit. This means a handful of districts, parents and students will be the named plaintiffs, instead of the MQEC. Most likely, the Columbia Falls School District will be named as the lead plaintiff, says district Superintendent Mike Nicosia.

MQEC now claims to represent about 50 percent of the state’s students, with plaintiffs running the gambit from large districts to small to best represent state demographics.

Members of the MQEC say they hope the matter can be settled without going to court, but they aren’t optimistic.

“People need to understand that the people who are doing this are doing it because of a firm and deeply felt belief that the state needs to invest in growth,” say Molloy. “And education is the primary investment a government can make.”

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