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Trial to begin for state education funding lawsuit

4:43 AM, Aug 1, 2011   |    comments
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A group of 21 school districts and 21 families involved in the lawsuit, Lobato et. Al., vs. The State of Colorado, say the state legislators are violating the Colorado constitution by failing to fund a "thorough and unified school system."

Last year, $3.2 billion went to K-12 education. If that group wins their judgment, lawmakers estimate an additional $2.4 billion dollars will head toward education funding.

On Sunday, a group of school administrators, teachers, and students demonstrated in support of the lawsuit in front of the Colorado state capitol. They argued that schools simply do not have enough money to provide a solid curriculum for their students, pay school employees, and most of all, guarantee graduation from high school.

Jeffco Public Schools superintendent Cindy Stevenson was among the demonstrators. She said Jeffco schools serve 85,000 children on a daily basis, but said her district is only one small slice of a much larger student population whose needs are not being met by Colorado lawmakers.

"While we are implementing important reforms with integrity, we are making grim, dreadful, wrong choices about funding," Stevenson said.

She said that's why representatives from Jeffco Public Schools will be among the plaintiffs who will appear in Denver district court Monday morning to face off against a legal team representing the state of Colorado - specifically, the state legislature.

David Hinojosa with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, "We look forward to providing our claims in court, and we look forward to bringing a just, thorough, and uniform education for all Colorado children. "

The plaintiff's demands are simple: honor the state constitution and provide what they call a more adequate level of funding to state education, an extra $2 to 4 billion every year.

But Gov. John Hickenlooper has joined a large group of state officials in saying that simply isn't an option

"I can't comprehend where that would come from" Hickenlooper said.

He said $2 to 4 billion would compromise nearly two thirds of the state general fund , which would leave lawmakers with no choice but to cut from other state programs.

"It's one of those things where if we lost the decision and suddenly had to find even $2 billion, the consequences to our prison system, to our higher education system, to our healthcare system would be devastating," Hickenlooper said.

If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says the state will appeal. His guess is that this trial will last for about five weeks, but he only expects a final ruling on the case to come from the Colorado Supreme Court.

The lawsuit failed in district court and the appeals court, before the state Supreme Court reversed those decisions in October 2009 and sent it back to district court. The Supreme Court decision said that the lawsuit's claim that the education system is "severely underfunded and allocates funds on an arbitrary and irrational basis" is justifiable, reversing the lower courts' decisions that the question of education funding is not a judicial matter.

The Supreme Court justices ruled that it's not their role to say whether there's a better system for funding education, "but merely to determine whether the system passes constitutional muster."

Kathy Gebhardt, the lead plaintiff attorney, said if the lawsuit succeeds the court would not set a dollar amount for the state to fund education but direct the Legislature to come up with a solution, such as referring a tax hike to voters.

She said that what the plaintiffs want is for "a research-based, targeted, strategic amount of money" to go to areas that could benefit from the sources, including poor rural districts in southern Colorado, which make up several of the lawsuit participants.

Suthers cited Wyoming and Missouri as other cases where states have been sued by groups dissatisfied with education funding. Suthers said results there have not improved.

"Just pouring money into the schools doesn't produce a better quality product," Suthers said.

Separate from the lawsuit, a group of school supporters who want to ask voters next year to raise taxes for schools planned to drop off petitions Monday with the state secretary of state, which will determine if there enough signatures to put the question on ballots next year.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)

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