Lawsuit between state, school district heads to court

5:28 PM, Jul 28, 2011   |    comments
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The lawsuit which pits the state against many of its school districts will be heard in a Denver District Courtroom starting on Monday.

Sitting next to the state's Republican Attorney General, John Suthers, the state's leading Democrat said the effects could be "devastating" should Colorado not prevail.

"Am I weighing in because I'm worried?" Hickenlooper asked during an afternoon briefing with reporters. "Sure, I'm worried."

The lawsuit, first filed in 2006, seeks to classify the current education funding system in the state as "unconstitutional" based upon an interpretation of a section of the Colorado Constitution which mandates a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state."

That section was originally written in 1876. It's the interpretation of that line that lies at the heart of this case.

Plaintiffs in the case include Jefferson County Schools, the state's largest school system.

"This boils down to the constitution," attorney Kento Kawanabe insisted.

Kawanabe will help represent the plaintiffs in a case that is expected to last five weeks.

"What we are asking the court to do is to examine whether or not the way the state funds public education is rational. We argue that it's not," he said.

The suit, in part, suggests "the irrational system ultimately forces school districts to choose between 'robbing Peter to pay Paul,' or simply leveling down the system for all students."

While Kawanabe says the suit does not seek a specific number for additional education funding for K-12 by the state legislature, he did call the current funding inadequate.

"You can mandate a number of things," he said, "but if you don't provide the resources to effectuate or implement it, then you're only guaranteeing failure."

Suthers was critical of the claim about money in particular.

"[The plaintiffs] will tell you that this isn't about money," he said. "But, trust me, that's what they want."

Suthers and Hickenlooper suggested the suit seeks upwards of an extra $2 to $4 billion in education funding per year.

"Someone asked me what the contingency is if we lose this. Well, we'd have to see what the judge says, but there are no immediate options I can see where we're suddenly going to find $2 billion," Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper pointed out the during the 2010-11 fiscal year, the General Fund budget totaled $6.9 billion, of which $3.2 billion was allocated for K-12 funding. That left $3.7 billion for everything else.

"If we lost this decision," he said, "and had to find even $2 billion, the consequences to our prison system, to our higher education system, to our health care system, I think, would be devastating."

Kawanabe said the fact that Colorado's per-pupil funding remains well below the national average should prove that something needs to be done.

In 2008-2009, supporters of the suit say, Colorado spent $1809 less per pupil than the national average. Supporters also say current spending on school finance is an "estimated $774 million below" the number mandated by the voters.

Kawanabe was also critical of the suggestion that the suit would be devastating to the state.

"[The legislators] do have options. So to say they don't... is not right and it's not constitutional," he said.

He suggested the legislature could, among other things, ask the voters for a tax increase to help funding levels.

Suthers estimated the state will put forward upwards of $2-4 million to fight the suit which has been funded, to some extent, by the various school districts which signed on as plaintiffs.

The suit has traveled up and down the state's court system. The original trial court dismissed the case shortly after the case was filed in 2006. The Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the decision in 2008, but in 2009, the Colorado State Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that the courts did have the power to decide the fundamental question at hand, and it subsequently sent the case back to Denver District Court.

For more on the suit, head to www.coloradoattorneygeneral.gov/lobato.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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