By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre Public Schools will join more than 90 school districts across the state that support a lawsuit claiming the Montana Legislature has failed to adequately fund public education.
On Tuesday night the Havre school board voted 5-0 to join the Montana Quality Education Coalition, the education advocacy group that filed the lawsuit.
As a result of the vote, HPS will pay about $5,000 for MQEC membership next year and possibly a year or more beyond that, depending on how long the suit takes. The dues will be used to pay attorneys' fees.
Before the vote, Superintendent Kirk Miller told the board that money had been set aside in the preliminary budget so it would be available if the trustees decided to get on board this year.
Even so, Havre trustees said the decision was not an easy one because of the money involved.
"I just think we really need to take a big step, and if it means we spend $5,000 now, hopefully it means we will build a better foundation in the future for free quality education," school board vice chair Kathie Newell said before the vote.
"I feel we need to force the Legislature's hand, and it appears this may be the only way we can do it," she said.
After the meeting, school board chair Denise Thompson said she had not supported the suit until just before the vote because she had felt it was unproductive to sue using taxpayer dollars. But she said she decided it was the board's responsibility to support the lawsuit.
"I feel personally this is the right thing to do for the kids," Thompson said. "We have to do something ... We have to make sure the Legislature defines a quality education and then funds it."
MQEC executive director Jack Copps said this morning he is very pleased with the board's decision.
"It's an important decision for us and it's an important decision for them," Copps said. "We believe the decision on the part of Havre is an investment in their schools."
He said HPS will not be listed as a plaintiff in the case unless it specifically asks to be one.
Copps spoke to the Havre trustees on July 8 to explain the lawsuit and ask Havre to join MQEC.
The coalition's lawsuit, filed in state District Court in September of 2002, hinges on Article 10 of Montana's constitution, which says, "The legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools. ... It shall fund and distribute in an equitable manner to the school districts the state's share of the cost of the basic elementary and secondary school system."
If successful, the lawsuit would mandate the Legislature to conduct a study to define a "basic system of quality education," the components and delivery of a basic system, and the state's share in providing that system.
While the suit does not ask the court to impose specific education funding levels on the Legislature, Copps has said he believes the study would lead to a public demand for more state funding for public education in Montana.
Copps said the state now funds about 60 percent of the cost of state education, a level he said is not adequate and which forces local property taxpayers to shoulder an unfair share of the burden.
He said transcripts of the 1972 state constitutional convention that produced the Montana Constitution reveal that the people who drafted the constitution believed a state contribution of 65 percent was not enough.
The school districts that have joined MQEC represent about 60 percent of Montana students, Copps said, adding that the Great Falls school board decided to join MQEC Monday night.
This morning Miller said he believes the board considered its decision carefully.
"I think that it was a tough decision and that they weighed the issues completely and felt it was necessary to throw their support (behind) the effort MQEC is making to establish adequate school funding in Montana," said Miller, who said he did not make a recommendation to the board before the vote because it was a philosophical issue for the trustees to decide.
Copps said the court will hear the case on Jan. 20 and that he is confident that regardless of the outcome, it will be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
If it is, a decision might not be reached before the start of the 2005 legislative session, he said.
Copps said MQEC dues are calculated each year based on what costs are expected to be, so that after the lawsuit is over, dues will probably be cheaper.