U.S. Markets closed

ACLU-Idaho files brief in school fees lawsuit

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho has filed a brief in a lawsuit over Idaho's school funding system to urge a judge to find that the state's method of paying for schools is still as unconstitutional as the Idaho Supreme Court found it to be back in 2005.

The friend-of-the-court brief was filed by ACLU attorney Ritchie Eppink last week in the lawsuit between former Nampa Schools Superintendent Russell Joki and the state. Joki contends that fees assessed for classes and supplies violate Idaho's constitutional promise of a free public education, and that the Legislature's tweaks to the funding system in recent years have made the problem worse.

The state says the courts don't have the authority to modify the school funding system and that responsibility lies with the Legislature alone. Attorneys also say that Joki's lawsuit should be thrown out because he didn't follow the procedure outlined by Idaho's Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act, a law amended by the Legislature in 2003 largely in response to a separate lawsuit over school funding that the state was facing at the time. The Act says, in part, that residents wishing to file a lawsuit over certain educational matters must sue first at their local district before they can bring the state into the lawsuit.

The Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act wrongly attempts to deprive the court of jurisdiction over school funding, the ACLU-Idaho contends.

"This case raises existential questions about the purpose of the Idaho judiciary, and whether the provisions and guarantees set forth in our state Constitution have any meanings for the lives of Idahoans, or whether they are instead just unenforceable, aspirational words," Eppink wrote in the brief.

The state has been sued before over school funding.

Joki's attorney is Robert Huntley, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice who first sued the state over poor education funding and crumbling schools in 1990 on behalf of several school districts, mostly in northern Idaho.

That lawsuit bounced between the state court and the Idaho Supreme Court for years until it finally went to trial before 4th District Judge Deborah Bail in 2011. She found that Idaho's school funding system, as it stood at the time, was unconstitutional because it didn't provide enough money.

The Idaho Supreme Court heard that case on appeal in 2005, and they found that Bail was right — Idaho's system was unconstitutional. But the high court declined to tell the Legislature how to fix it, leaving that up to lawmakers.

In the meantime, the Legislature made several changes to the funding scheme including creating a revolving loan fund to fix unsafe schools and giving matching cash to districts that passed levies to fix facilities.

In the current lawsuit, Joki contends that Idaho schools are still primarily funded through an unequalized property tax and that means students in poor districts get dramatically less funding than those in wealthier areas.

The ACLU cited Joki's contention that the Legislature has made matters worse in the following years by systematically reducing the funding effort from the state that goes to the public schools.

"The state has not offered any evidence to the contrary. Its affidavits do not deal with any systemwide funding issue. They include nothing to refute that today's funding system, which the Supreme Court held in 2005 was "simply not sufficient to carry out the Legislature's duty under the constitution' is not still 'a system over reliant on local property taxes (that) is by its very nature an arbitrary system that can never be totally thorough,'" Eppink wrote.

The ACLU-Idaho also contends the court shouldn't allow the Legislature to "avoid its duty" in the school funding case.

"The Legislature, which the people of this State have invested with the duty of administering a 'general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools,' cannot avoid its duty by stripping this Court of its inherent jurisdiction to issue declaratory judgments on constitutional questions," Eppink wrote.