Attorney: Idahoans should be 'alarmed' on school funding

Attorney: Idahoans should be 'alarmed' on school funding
Boise attorney Robert Huntley talks about his lawsuit against the state of Idaho on Friday, Oct. 12, in Boise, Idaho. Huntley is challenging the constitutionality of how Idaho funds its public schools. (AP Photo/Todd Dvorak)
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawsuit over Idaho's system of funding public schools is growing, with the former school superintendent who is pressing the case reviving the claims made in another lawsuit that plodded through Idaho's courts for 15 years.

Russell Joki, a former Nampa Schools Superintendent who teaches graduate-level classes to aspiring school administrators at the University of Idaho, sued the state this month in Ada County's 4th District Court, contending that student fees for things like chemistry and art supplies violate Idaho's constitutional promise of a free public education.

Now he's adding a second cause of action to the lawsuit, contending that Idaho lawmakers have ignored an Idaho Supreme Court ruling from 2005 that found Idaho's school funding system didn't pass constitutional muster.

"Despite the clear ruling of the Idaho Supreme Court, the Legislature has not introduced a single piece of legislation to comply with the Supreme Court mandate," Joki's attorney, Robert Huntley, wrote in the amended lawsuit.

In fact, Huntley and Joki maintain, not only has the Legislature failed to enact any legislation to make the state's funding system constitutional, it's further eroded the current funding system by cutting money for schools and moving some of the revenue stream from property taxes — considered a fairly stable source of funding — to sales and use taxes, which fluctuates depending on the economy.

Besides, Joki contends, the property tax funding system means that students in poor regions get dramatically less than their peers in more robust parts of the state.

If successful, the lawsuit could lead to dramatic changes in the way the state pays for schools. But if recent history is any indication, it could also be just another skirmish in a battle that has bounced between the courts and the Legislature for decades.

Huntley, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice, first sued the state over poor education funding and crumbling schools in 1990 on behalf of several school districts, mostly in northern Idaho. Around the same time, attorney Merlyn Clark also sued the state on behalf of some other school districts, including Pocatello and Meridian, contending the districts needed state help to improve teacher salaries.

The court consolidated those two cases, but four years later Clark and his school districts agreed to drop their portion of the lawsuit when the Legislature changed the funding statutes to provide an allowance for staff salaries as part of a package totaling about $100 million.

But Huntley's districts persisted with their case, eventually narrowing the lawsuit to focus on the dilapidated state of school buildings, some of which were partially condemned, infested with black mold and had broken heating systems and leaking roofs.

The lawsuit bounced between the state court and the Idaho Supreme Court about three times on various issues before it finally went to trial before 4th District Judge Deborah Bail in 2001. She ultimately ruled that Idaho's school funding system, as it stood at the time, was unconstitutional because it didn't provide enough money.

She retained jurisdiction over the case so she could act if the Legislature failed to address her ruling. But that step also prevented the Idaho Supreme Court from reviewing the decision until 2005.

When the state's highest bench finally did hear the matter, the justices decided Bail was right — Idaho's system was unconstitutional. But though the Idaho Supreme Court agreed the system was broken, the justices said they wouldn't tell the Legislature how to fix it — that was for lawmakers to decide.

In the meantime, lawmakers had made several changes to the funding scheme. One of the most notable came in 2006, when Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, successfully pushed a bill that created a $25 million revolving loan fund to fix unsafe or insufficient schools and gave matching cash to districts that passed levies for new facilities.

"There have been many, many improvements to the system" since 2001, said Deputy Attorney General Mike Gilmore, one of the attorneys who has represented the state in both the older lawsuit and Joki's new filing. "There have been changes. The issue now is whether enough has changed, and that's why there's a lawsuit."

Gilmore said he didn't want to get into the specifics of the state's stance until he files Idaho's response to Joki's new claims, likely sometime in the first half of November. Still, he said, the Idaho Supreme Court was correct — the Legislature has the authority to create and modify Idaho's school funding system, and the courts do not.

But the courts can weigh in on whether the system, as it stands now, is good enough. Huntley maintains the answer to that question is a clear "no," despite the changes made over the past decade.

"None of those things fixed the things that were wrong in the system," Huntley said. "Also, those things ran out of funds and the Legislature didn't re-fund them."

Joki and Huntley claim in the lawsuit that because schools are still funded primarily through an unequalized property tax system, students in poor regions get dramatically less funding than students in wealthier areas.

They cite the Snake River School District, where the market value of property is about $154,000 per student and no levies have been passed. The district spends more than $5,300 per student per year, entirely from the state. In the McCall-Donnelly District, by comparison, the market value of property is about $4.6 million per student and levies produce more than $6,600 per student, giving the school more than $13,000 to spend for each pupil.

"The Idaho economy depends on our educational system," Huntley said. "And over the past 15 to 20 years, we have been destroying the foundation of our system, which is proper funding."

But even if Huntley convinces the courts of all of Joki's claims, what makes him think a win this time will result in anything different?

"I think it can be different if the people of Idaho unite and support schools," he said. "Until the people of Idaho become involved, the Legislature will not change. When the public becomes aware of the fact that we are now the Mississippi of the West and that we are making a lesser effort for our schools than any other state in the nation, we will become ashamed and alarmed."