By Tim Leeds
The Havre school board won't endorse a lawsuit - at least for now - that challenges the way the state funds public schools in Montana.
Havre board member Judy Bricker, who represents District 2 in the Montana School Board Association, asked her fellow board members on Tuesday if they want her to vote in favor of supporting the lawsuit filed by the Montana Quality Education Coalition. The lawsuit asks the Montana courts to determine whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide "free quality public elementary and secondary schools."
The School Board Association has asked District 2 to take a stand on the suit, Bricker said.
"We're going to be pressed to move off of the fence and throw our considerable district weight as an association for or against it," she said.
Bricker said about four of 20 districts in the association have not taken a position.
The coalition filed the lawsuit in state District Court in Lewis and Clark County in September. The coalition said the state's share of total school funding has dropped over the last 10 years and that some districts are facing more reductions in state funding because of declining enrollment. Those factors, coupled with the potential for additional cuts due to the state budget deficit, mean the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation, the coalition says.
Some members of the Havre board said they would not support the lawsuit unless the Legislature fails to listen to proposals to increase its support of public education. Bricker agreed with that stand.
"I won't guarantee that I won't vote for it," she said. "But I will vote no, when asked, if there's a glimmer of hope."
Bricker noted that the lawsuit is filed and will go before the courts regardless of the association's position.
Jim Heberly, chairman of the Havre board, said he can't support the lawsuit no matter what the Legislature does.
"I don't think a lawsuit's the answer," he said. "I don't think lawsuits and these kinds of threats do any good."
The proper course of action is to go through the legislative process to change school funding, Heberly said.
Board member Joe Marino said having the courts force the Legislature to increase school funding could cause difficulty working with the Legislature. It could give the impression that any time public education is unhappy with the Legislature's work it will say, "I'm going to call foul and go to the courts," he said.
Bricker said the lawsuit has caused some ill will.
"It's being taken pretty personally by some legislators," she said.
Havre Superintendent Kirk Miller, who also chairs the Montana Board of Public Education, said the lawsuit may not be necessary. Legislation proposed by the Board of Public Education, if it passes, would require the 2005 Legislature to address many of the same issues the coalition is.
The legislation would require the Legislature to "assemble experts to reinvent (school funding) in a better way," Miller said.
Board member Kathie Newell said she supports that action. "I think it's better to be proactive in a quiet way," she said. "I am opposed to the Montana School Board Association putting their stamp of approval on MQEC."
Board member Denise Thompson said she agrees with Newell. The Legislature is trying to do its best, she said.
"(Supporting the lawsuit) would be a slap in the face to them," she added.
The only way she would support the lawsuit is if the Legislature totally rejects the Board of Public Education legislation, Thompson said.
Board member Teresa Miller said many legislators don't seem to understand the problem.
"Until we have some qualified people that get it making decisions, we won't get out of the hole," she said.
Member Aileen Couch agreed that working with the Legislature would be best, but that she understands the need to get the legislators' attention.
"For years we've tried to get attention in Helena and it just didn't happen," she said.
Bricker and Teresa Miller said that virtually every legislator campaigned on a platform of supporting education.
"Then they go down there and it doesn't happen," Miller said.
Heberly pointed out that there must be some reason that legislators don't increase education funding. Their constituents might be telling them not to raise taxes and they're only following their constituents' wishes, he said.
"The money's got to come from somewhere, and that's the whole problem. Where's it going to come from?" Heberly asked.
"I have to disagree," Bricker said. "There are some people down there (in the Legislature) with their own agendas."
Bricker pointed out that the School Board Association has not yet taken a vote on the lawsuit. It probably won't unless the Board of Public Education's legislation is rejected, she said.
"It would be done as a last resort and for maximum impact," she said.
"When they're not listening, you have to throw some tea in the harbor," she added.
She said she will not vote to support the lawsuit "until every reasonable avenue has been rebuffed. Then my tea goes in the harbor."