Suits mount against lopsidedly local school funding

Robern Webby, a 10-year-old schoolgirl in Brockton, Mass., may within the coming year find herself somewhat of a celebrity among Massachusetts property owners.

In a court suit which is being referred to as "the Webby case," the parents of Robern have been joined by those of nine other school-children in Bay State communities to challenge the constitutionality for school financing.

At issue here, as in a number of other states, are the increasingly heavy burden on local residents of financing ever-rising school costs and the variance in the quality of education from community to community, despite state aid aimed at "equalizing" per pupil expenditures. Affluent school districts usually manage to do better.

Latest figures compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics show that MAssachusetts tops all states in disparity between state and local funding of public schools on a per-pupil basis. The commonwealth's cities and towns now pay 63.4 percent of all school costs, the state pays 63.4 percent of all school costs, the state pays 31.6 percent, and the remaining 5 percent comes from the federal government. Fewer than a half-dozen states contribute a smaller percentage of public school costs.

With suits like the one in Massachusetts either in process or successfully pursued in at least eight other states within the past decade, how best to fund local school costs has become a national question.

Although the Massachusetts case, or a similar one on the same issue, may wind up in the US Supreme Court, there is considerable reluctance to move in that direction in light of a controversial 5-to-4 adverse ruling by the justices in a Texas case. The high court, in reversing a lower federal district court decision in 1973, held that education is not a fundamental right guaranteed under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US constitution.

The Webby case, like a landmark 1971 suit in California and others more recently in Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington State, will be processed through the state courts, on state constitutional rather than federal constitutional grounds.

In contrast to the Supreme Court ruling, courts in Colorado, New York, and Wyoming have within the past two years struck down first two, however, are under appeal to those states' highest courts.

Besides Massachusetts, other states where challenges of schol funding are pending are Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The Wyoming decision, handed down last January by the state's Supreme Court, has triggered a flurry of activity to pick up the fiscal pieces and develop a new means for bankrolling scholl districts. A 10-member steering committee comprising state law-makers is to report its recommendations by Oct. 15. The court has given the legislature until 1983 to solve the school funding problem, which may require amending the Wyoming constitution.

The April 1973 New Jersey Supreme Court overturning of that state's then heavily weighted local public school funding led to passage of a state personal income tax, administrator of one of the communities which brought the suit.

he notes that the state share of school funding has increased substantially since the changeover, thus providing needed local property tax relief.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which Mr. Shaw now heads, is pressing the Webby case, which he and his colleagues expect will be argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court late this fall.

Because of the expense invovled in such litigation, the plaintiffs, who initiated the suit two years ago, had hoped its pursuit would not be necessary and the Legislature, noting what happened in similar cases in other states, "Would get the message" and get behind tax reform.

"Since the Legislature has again refused to deal with the tax reform question , we must now pursue our school suit to assure a restructing of the state's system of financing public education," Mr. Shaw asserts.

In Connecticut the privately operated Public Expenditures Council is completing a study of the impact on the state of increased school aid demanded by that state's Supreme Court funding decision.The council reports that since 1976 the average cost per pupil has span the state's share of local school financing rose from $164 million in fiscal 1975 to $276 million in the current annual spending cycle. And $90 million of that $112 million increase was due to court-mandated equalization formulas.

Critics of funding schools substantially through the local property tax argue that the arrangement is inequitable since citizens living in an older community with an eroding tax base are, in effect, paying more and getting less schooling for their children than families living in wealthier towns.

Ernest J. Webby Jr., the father of the key plaintiff in the Massachusetts suit, makes it clear that his objection is not to the quality of education his daughter is getting in the Brockton school system but to the amount it costs him and other city taxpayers to run the local schools.

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