Montana Court Denies Relief

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

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In December, District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled that Montana plaintiff districts are not entitled to more of the court's help in securing needed funding for their schools.

Columbia Falls plaintiffs had returned to court last spring to ask that the state be forced to comply with a 2004 ruling that ordered the state to design and fund a "basic system of free, quality" schools. The state responded that school funding has risen and, therefore, the state is in compliance.

However, much of the new funding was in the form of one-time earmarks that have not been maintained during the economic downturn. The plaintiff coalition, which included rural White Sulphur Springs district, argued in the Lewis and Clark County courtroom that many financing problems had yet to be resolved.

Judge Sherlock saw sufficient dispute to hold hearings in September and October. His ruling outlined various issues in the case, including the definition of a quality education, the number of school districts budgeting at the maximum, teacher recruitment and retention, and competition for funding between general and special education. It also described legislative changes that have occurred since 2004 and other information Sherlock received at trial, including two studies -- one showing that Montana teacher salaries had decreased relative to the national average and another showing that teacher recruitment and retention problems appear to be concentrated in rural, isolated districts.

While acknowledging that some problems remain, Judge Sherlock chose not to grant supplemental relief at this time. In a brief advisory section, he reiterated that state appropriations for special education costs are far short of what is needed and must be addressed. Sherlock also noted that "increasing salaries for rural and isolated districts would have a noticeable impact on recruitment and retention problems."

However, he characterized these and other issues as less severe than in 2004 and noted that making specific recommendation would overstep his judicial role. He also said that the legislature and state have made a good faith attempt to address financing problems.

The Montana School Boards Association, another member of the plaintiff coalition, expressed disappointment with the decision in light of budget cuts and tax increases facing schools. Members of the Montana Rural Education Association have characterized the education increases as doing "as little as possible to satisfy the lawsuit." The plaintiffs plan to work in this year's legislative session on the funding issues.

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Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.