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HELENA (AP) - The superintendent of a school district punched by levy defeats talked about teacher layoffs and makeshift financing through bake sales Tuesday at the opening of a trial on Montana's system of school funding.

East Helena Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer testified in a District Court bench trial that could last three weeks about the effects of .

The case arises from a lawsuit by the Montana Quality Education Coalition, comprised of education groups that contend state financial support is inadequate, inequitable and jeopardizes access to a quality education as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. The coalition wants the court to make the state determine what is needed to have that kind of education, and then pay for it.

Under questioning by coalition lawyer Jim Molloy, Whitmoyer said East Helena schools were left reeling from insufficient state money and the defeat of two local tax levies, in 2001 and 2002. Garage and bake sales by volunteers mitigated some harm and voters approved a levy last year, but the district has been unable to reverse all the damage, Whitmoyer said.

"I feel that our kids were harmed a great deal, especially the middle school kids," he said. "It broke my heart." He said his district offered early-retirement incentives to shed highly experienced, expensive teachers.

"We're asking them to retire early so that we can afford to buy some cheap teachers at half their salary," Whitmoyer said.

But under questioning by state Solicitor Brian Morris, Whitmoyer acknowledged East Helena largely has experienced, well-qualified teachers, some holding prestigious awards, who make more than $35,000 a year. Whitmoyer also confirmed the district is able to attract applicants from other states despite pay lower than in some places.

Morris summarized a history of levy passage in East Helena, indicating the defeats in 2001 and 2002 were aberrations as the town felt the economic setback of a smelter closure.

In his opening statement, Molloy said he will not assert that Montana lacks quality education yet, but that quality is being compromised over time as state support drops. The court case is not about whining school leaders "always wanting more," but about the state's fulfillment of obligations, he told District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.

Molloy said that in 1991, about 72 percent of support for schools came from the state. That has fallen to about 60 percent in the current year, he said. Other money comes from local and federal sources.

Another lawyer for the state, Ali Bovingdon, said evidence during the trial will cover Montana's state support compared to that of other states; teacher quality; and student achievement.

Bovingdon said the question is not whether schools would benefit from more money _ just about any public program would _ but whether what schools get is adequate.

She said adequacy of funding is an abstract concept the court should not have to address, and the court is being asked to get embroiled in an issue that properly rests with the Legislature.

Bovingdon also said there is no evidence of widespread inequities in funding, and what imbalance there is largely involves rural vs. urban schools and those with sizable American Indian enrollments.

Rural schools cost more to operate and the Legislature has chosen to protect them as part of the Montana way of life, Bovingdon said. Schools with Indian enrollments get additional dollars through federal programs intended to help meet special cultural needs, and the benefits of that are clear, she said.

Molloy said the state system does not cushion schools faced with declining enrollment, which is widespread in Montana.

"It is a myth that a 2 percent reduction in enrollment would equate to a 2 percent reduction in costs," Molloy said. School administrators say enrollment declines are scattered among grades, and loss of students does not necessarily bring the ability to reduce staffing, heating costs and other expenses.

Molloy also said state funding leaves schools lacking what they need to meet minimum accreditation standards, and nearly 20 percent of Montana schools are not in compliance.

He said inadequacies in funding create unhealthy competition during the school budget process, pitting the needs of special education against regular education, and leaving school boards to choose between staff pay raises and other needs.

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