By SARAH COOKE/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The Montana Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court's ruling Tuesday that declared the state's system of funding public schools unconstitutional.
In a three-page preliminary order, justices said the current funding system is not based on ''educationally relevant'' factors and agreed students are not receiving a quality education.
The Legislature must now define what constitutes a quality education and, as ordered by the lower court, create a new school funding system, the justices ruled. The 2005 Legislature convenes in January.
A new funding method must be in place by October 2005, the court ruled, rejecting a request by the plaintiffs to move up the deadline from October to May 2005.
Few state leaders were surprised by the ruling. School funding is expected to dominate the upcoming legislative session and could result in a special session next summer if lawmakers can't finish revamping the system by adjournment in late April.
Gov. Judy Martz, who supported challenging the lower court's decision in June, said she's glad the state appealed, but added the Legislature and new administration must now work together to find a solution.
''This is a good ruling for Montana's public school children,'' she said.
Eric Feaver, president of the state's largest teachers' union MEA-MFT, said the ruling ''underscores that the hard work is still yet to come.''
''We won what we thought we would win from the beginning, that the Legislature has failed its constitutional obligation,'' he said.
A full written opinion by the court is expected at a later date.
Justices cited their ''present workload'' in issuing a preliminary order in the case, but said lawmakers and administrators needed to know about their decision as quickly as possible in order to come up with a new system by October.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, who is expected to be Senate president in the coming session, wasn't surprised by the ruling, but added he didn't think a special session was needed.
The Democrat from Big Sandy wants to create a select committee on education funding to tackle the problem, something current Senate President Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, also agreed with.
''We've got to get together and find some common ground,'' Tester said. ''It sounds like we've got to define quality education before we can do anything with funding.''
But Keenan said a special session may be ''prudent'' given the hundreds of other bills addressed in a 90-day regular session and the transition of Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer's new administration early next year.
''The most important thing is we don't just hurry up and grab a solution, that we get a good solution rather than just trying to put our fingers in the dike and patch it back together,'' he said.
Schweitzer said he'll be reviewing the decision closely and called it ''a great opportunity'' for the Legislature.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch praised the higher court's ruling, particularly its conclusion that the state has failed to implement its Indian Education for All Act. The act calls for all Montana students to learn about the cultural heritage of American Indians, but has not been adequately funded.
The state was sued in 2002 by a coalition of education groups over its funding system, which was declared unconstitutional in April by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena. The state appealed the ruling in June.
During oral arguments last month, State Solicitor Brian Morris urged the Supreme Court to stay out of the mess and said the Montana Constitution gives the Legislature responsibility over school funding.
The court sided with Jim Molloy, lead attorney for the education groups, who argued justices had a legal responsibility to judge the system's constitutionality. The court also dismissed assertions by the state that the issue was a political one.
This isn't the first time justices have waded into the school funding debate. In 1989, the court overturned the state's existing funding system because money was not distributed to schools equitably.
Havre Public Schools superintendent Kirk Miller said he was pleased with the ruling. "I think that that this opinion provides us with great hope for meeting the needs of our students in the future. We are certainly willing to come to the table to assist in every way we can."
"The efforts of the School Renewal Commission and the Montana Quality Education Commission will become the focal point in beginning to meet the court's mandate. Havre public schools have been involved with both organizations in helping to craft recommendations," he said.
The Montana School Board's Association, the School Administrators of Montana and the Montana Quality Education Commission have invited state Legislators to Havre High School at 7 p.m. Nov. 23 to discuss how the state can best proceed.
The Legislature overhauled the mechanism twice, the last time in 1993.
On the Net:
Office of Public Instruction: http://www.opi.state.mt.us
Havre Daily News reporter Ellen Thompson contributed to this story.