Moffat County School District among 119 plaintiffs in school funding trial
July 29, 2011
“We want the judge to say that the … (Colorado) General Assembly is not following the constitution. And, we want the judge to tell the General Assembly to fix it.”
—Mark Stevens, communications consultant, on the plaintiff’s objective in Lobato v. Colorado.
To learn more about the plaintiff’s objectives in Lobato v. Colorado, visit http://www.childrens-voices.org.
Lobato v. Colorado, a court case filed nearly six years ago, is slated for trial Monday in Denver District Court.
The Moffat County School District is one of 119 plaintiffs in the case.
Children's Voices, a Colorado-based nonprofit law firm that is handling the case, contends the Colorado school finance system is unconstitutional.
Under the state constitution, students have a right to a "thorough and uniform" public education system.
Although the case took shape in 2005, the school district's involvement began a year ago.
In June 2010, Kathy Gebhardt, a lawyer with Children's Voices, appeared at a school board meeting to discuss the case, and asked the district to show support as a plaintiff.
The school board voted, 7-0, in favor of joining the suit. Other plaintiffs include 97 individuals and 22 school districts from around the state.
The defendants are the state, the Colorado State Board of Education, Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The case is named for the original plaintiffs, the Lobato family from the San Luis Valley. The team of attorneys who comprise Children's Voices work pro bono, said Joe Petrone, Moffat County School District superintendent.
"They acted on behalf of concerned parents at several San Luis districts and others across the state, and they filed suit alleging that as a result of Colorado's extremely restrictive tax laws, the state is unconstitutionally under-funding the educational system by close to $1 billion annually," the superintendent said.
Petrone said the district's participation in the case makes sense.
"The outcome or the benefit seemed to be extraordinarily important," he said. "That would be to assess whether or not the General Assembly has adequately implemented a thorough and uniform mandate. The plaintiff schools believe of course that they have not."
Mark Stevens, communications consultant for the Lobato team, said the case has had early successes.
"The case has been up to the (Colorado) Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said last October that the public school finance system must be reviewed by the courts to assure that it meets the constitutional requirement of a 'thorough and uniform' system,'" he said.
Stevens said the objective of Children's Voices is simple.
"We want the judge to say that the … (Colorado) General Assembly is not following the constitution," he said. "And, we want the judge to tell the General Assembly to fix it."
Stevens said Petrone is not scheduled to appear at the trial, but that could change.
"It's possible," Stevens said. "There are many, many more potential witnesses than will actually be called."
Petrone said the outcome of the case could potentially increase per pupil funding at districts like Moffat County, but acknowledged that receiving more funding might be difficult in the current economic climate.
"If the General Assembly was directed by the court to apply this mandate — thorough and uniform — in a fashion that is more equitable, one doesn't know how they would be able to manage that because of the difficult economic times," Petrone said. "However, the point that Children's Voices is making is that if in fact it needs to be changed, we'll be poised and positioned to do that.
"How it happens is really the responsibility of the General Assembly."
Hickenlooper, a defendant in the case, said Friday that the current school financing system exceeds what the signers of the state constitution intended.
"Certainly, when the constitution was written and used that language, it was never anticipated that the state would pay for all of it," the governor said Friday during a visit to Hayden. "Up until 1939, the state paid 5 percent (of school funding)."
The rest, he said, was paid from property taxes.
"They (authors of the state constitution) wanted to make sure there was a system of education that everybody got," he said. "That's what they intended."
Hickenlooper said the issue should go before the legislature and voters rather than the courts.
"I'm not sure a court should be the one that decides whether we have sufficient funding for our schools," he said.
The trial is expected to last five weeks.
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