Education funding gets day in court

Montezuma-Cortez among 21 districts suing

DENVER – Colorado’s education-funding system went on trial Monday, and the results could bring billions of dollars more into public schools and chaos for state government.

A group of parents and 21 school districts – including Montezuma-Cortez – is suing the state in a case called Lobato v. Colorado, claiming inadequate funding for schools. Opening arguments took most of the morning Monday.

“This case begins with the constitution and ends with children,” said Kenzo Kawanabe, who made the plaintiffs’ opening argument.

The plaintiffs are basing their case on Colorado’s constitution, which requires a “thorough and uniform” system of education and local control of schools. They claim the state is violating both principles by not paying enough for schools, even as the Legislature passes more education-reform laws that school districts must follow.

The exact definition of “thorough and uniform” will be under debate throughout the five-week trial, but Kawanabe argued that the Legislature has answered the question with several laws it has passed on tougher curriculum, testing and graduation standards.

“They are requirements of the General Assembly. They help define a thorough and uniform system of public schools. If school districts don’t meet them, state defendants shut them down,” Kawanabe said.

Schools need an extra $1.4 billion to $3.6 billion per year, in addition to $18 billion worth of construction and maintenance needs, Kawanabe said, citing a study the plaintiffs commissioned.

The plaintiffs aren’t asking Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport to order the extra funding, but they do want her to tell the Legislature that its school-funding formula is unconstitutional and needs to be changed.

Schools districts already use nearly half the state’s general fund budget, so such a ruling would require either steep cuts to other departments or a tax increase.

The state is going to argue that more money will not make the schools better.

Colorado students rank above average on the Nation’s Report Card, the federal government’s official report on school quality, said Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Heinke.

“Under the plaintiffs’ theory, because Colorado spends near the bottom, students ought to be performing near the bottom. They’re not,” Heinke said.

The first witness, Center schools superintendent George Welsh, testified that his district lacks the money to pay for a standard curriculum in its high school, half of its library books need replacing and students have to share textbooks.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers displayed a video of a globe in Center’s elementary school that still shows the Soviet Union, and they shared pictures of old playground equipment.

“We call that merry-go-round the thing that keeps our school nurse in business,” Welsh said.

On the other hand, Center schools recently won a grant to build a brand new campus, and each older student gets free use of a laptop computer.

The plaintiffs expect to finish their case by Aug. 24, after which the state will put on its defense.

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