Judge: Montana not footing education bill

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

HELENA, Mont. (AP) A district judge on Thursday threw out Montana's system of financing schools, saying state government fails to provide enough money to meet education standards guaranteed in the state constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena found no fault with the way state aid is distributed among the 440 school districts. Rather, he said, the state is not paying its fair share of education in Montana.

He concluded that ''Montana's funding formula is not reasonably related to the costs of providing a basic system of quality public elementary and secondary schools.''

Sherlock delayed the effect of his decision until October 2005, giving the next Legislature time to come up with a solution and to allow for an expected appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. The next general legislative session convenes in January 2005.

The ruling, should it be upheld, means the Legislature will have to funnel more money into public schools in order to fix the problem Sherlock cited, said Brian Morris, state solicitor, who defended the existing system.

''The judge is stating his opinion that the state is not funding schools sufficiently,'' he said.

Sherlock said the funding mechanism is unconstitutional because it is flawed in its design.

''To satisfy Montana's Constitution, the state's school finance system must be based upon a determination of the needs and costs of the public school system, and the school finance system must be designed and based on educationally relevant factors,'' he wrote.

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