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Witnesses say Missouri schools are well funded

By AP / Marshall Griffin, KWMU

9/20/07 – Attorneys for the state say Missouri is providing more than enough money for its public schools.

The issue was revived by a Cole County judge who ruled last month against almost all claims that public schools have been under-funded.

Judge Richard Callahan wanted to hear more testimony to find out if a constitutional requirement was being met. It mandates at least 25% of state revenues go toward public schools.

Geri Ogle from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education testified that the State Schools Money Fund received over $2 billion last year.

When asked by a defense attorney if that meant that the appropriation expenditures authorized, quote, "exceeded the appropriation transfers into the state schools money fund?"

"Yes, by approximately $62 million," Ogle said.

Marty Drewel, Deputy Director of Budget and Planning for the state Office of Administration, testified that more than $3.3 billion was spent in 2006 on education.

Attorney Alex Bartlett, who represents the suing school districts, still claims his clients are being under-funded.

However, when the judge pressed Bartlett to come up with a precise percentage, he failed to do so.

After hearing four hours of testimony, the judge concurred that the state seems to be spending more than enough, though he did not issue a formal ruling.

During a lengthy trial earlier this year, the state asserted it was doing even more than required by allotting nearly 36% of state revenues to schools in 2006.

Callahan wanted to hear more arguments because of a dispute among state officials and the suing school districts' attorneys about exactly what funds should be included in the calculation.

The attorney general's office, defending the state, contends in its legal briefs that there is "undisputed evidence" the state "spends substantially more on public education than its constitution requires."

The state treasury took in $20.9 billion in 2006. But not all of that was considered state revenue. For example, the state revenue calculation excludes federal funds, tax refunds and bond sale proceeds, because they are borrowed money which must be paid back.

When all the various deductions are made, that $20.9 billion in receipts amounts to just $10.6 billion in actual state revenues, the state asserts. When divided by the $3.8 billion the state spent on public education, Missouri allotted almost 36% of its revenues to schools in 2006.

Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the suing schools, contends money dedicated for certain uses by the constitution or state law should be excluded from the state revenue and the school spending calculations.

But even under that scenario, the state spent 35% of its revenues on public schools in 2006, testified Marty Drewel, deputy director of budget and planning in the state Office of Administration.

Under any scenario, the state's spending on public schools is greater than the constitution's 25% requirement of state revenues, Drewel said.

University of Missouri-Columbia economist Joseph Haslag, testifying for several taxpayers who intervened as defendants in the lawsuit, said the evidence "conclusively establishes" the state spends more than 25% of its available revenues on public schools.

According to Haslag's calculations, that amount was nearly 38% in 2006. Nonetheless, the suing school districts assert the 25% threshold is not being met.

Callahan pressed Bartlett to produce a precise percentage or at least say what he considers to be the state revenues and school spending dollars, so a rival calculation could be made of the percentage of money going to schools. But Bartlett declined to do so.

Attorneys for the state and taxpayer defendants expressed frustration that Bartlett declined to provide any specific figures backing up his assertion that the state wasn't meeting the constitutional mark. That made it hard defend against his assertion, said attorney general's counsel James McAdams and the taxpayers' private attorney, Joshua Schindler.

Callahan reassured them: "On the legal issues I tend to lean in your direction."

Even under a "worst-case scenario," Callahan said as the hearing concluded, it appears the state is spending at least 29% of its revenues on schools.

Bartlett has said the entire case likely is to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. But the judge must rule on whether the state is meeting the 25% spending requirement before that happens.

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