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Trial over school funding ends after five weeks

5:28 PM, Sep 2, 2011   |    comments
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"We were excited about trying to achieve something for rural schools and for public education in general," Anthony Lobato, lead plaintiff in the case, said.

Lobato is a rancher who grew up in the San Luis Valley near Center, Colo. He has two daughters, Alexa and Taylor, who sparked the lawsuit by seeing how different their school is from others.

"We could see what other kids had," Alexa Lobato, a junior at Center High School, said. "That's what we wanted and we tried to get it and this is what it came to."

Lobato, lawyers, and leaders from 21 school districts are asking the court to answer the question of whether the state's school finance system provides a "thorough and uniform" school system as required by the Colorado Constitution.

"You know, this turned into a bigger thing than we thought five years ago," Anthony Lobato said.

If the plaintiffs win, the potential is that the whole state government system could be restructured to provide a more equitable funding system to smaller school districts like Center.

"When you have other districts that get two or three times as much per student, you know [Center] students are getting ripped off," Diego Martinez, a math teacher in Center, said.

Martinez says with the new state standards, he now has to piecemeal a curriculum together using parts of six older text books because Center cannot afford to buy new ones.

"You are trying to be a good soldier," Martinez said. "You're trying to get out there and make the most of what you have."

Ofelia Gonzalez is a junior who aspires to be a lawyer. She says because of Center's lack of resources, she's already behind while preparing for college.

"I think we all deserve the same education," Gonzalez said. "No matter where you're at, no matter if you're in a big city or a small city like us, I think we all deserve the same education."

Rebecca Reed is the school librarian. She says the average age of her books is about 17 years old. She says half of her collection needs to be replaced.

"We'd like to have something for everybody and I don't think we do," Reed said.

Alexa Lobato says it is more than just a need for books. It's a need for more classes, more programs, and more athletics.

"No college classes, no [advanced placement] classes, which is hard because they don't offer them here," Alexa Lobato said.

Just because the Center school district is struggling for money, does that necessarily mean that the state school finance system is unconstitutional?

"The education project in Colorado is not just all about the money," Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said.

Suthers says the quality of schools relies more on the talents of the teachers and staff members.

"It's not just money," Suthers said. "If you're going to get a better result, you're going to need some structural changes within education."

Suthers points out that even if you look at the money, the state is more than fair to smaller school districts.

"The reality is we spend more in the poorer areas and in the rural areas than we do in other places," Suthers said.

He says this whole argument doesn't even belong in the courts.

"The bottom line is this is an issue that the legislature's been grappling with, that the people of Colorado have been grappling with in Amendment 23 and our argument has always been, that's where it needs to be decided," he said.

Judge Sheila Rappaport is expected to issue a written decision within the next couple of months. Either way, lawyers from both sides have already stated, there will be an appeal. This case could eventually end up in the State Supreme Court.

"I think all students in Colorado are gonna benefit from the discussion that's gonna follow the lawsuit," Anthony Lobato said.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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