DENVER – A judge has declared Colorado’s school finance system unconstitutional, a decision that could put taxpayers and their state government on the hook for billions of dollars in educational costs.
The decision, if it stands up on appeal, will rank among the most important legal cases in Colorado history.
Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport on Friday afternoon found for the plaintiffs in the Lobato case, which began as a lawsuit by San Luis Valley school districts about low funding from the state. Since then, other districts and people around the state joined the lawsuit, including Montezuma-Cortez schools.
Rappaport gave each side the chance to submit a proposed ruling, and she chose the plaintiffs’ 183-page submission.
“There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded. This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system,” Rappaport’s ruling says.
The plaintiffs say Colorado schools need an extra $1 billion to $4 billion a year. The Legislature already spends nearly half its $7 billion general fund on schools, so it is not clear where the extra money would come from, except a tax increase.
Rappaport’s ruling does not specify how much money schools would need to make the system pass legal muster.
But she did say the current system does not fulfill the state constitution’s guarantee of a thorough and uniform education for all Colorado children.
Two Cortez teachers who testified for the plaintiffs were ecstatic.
“I’m excited for my students,” said Justine Bayles, a teacher at Cortez Middle School and a mother of four. “I’m excited for my children. I’m excited for the people I work with.”
She and Matt Keefauver, a teacher at Kemper Elementary School, provided the emotional highlight of the August trial, which was an otherwise dry five weeks of exploring school budgets and student performance.
Both teachers were moved to tears on the witness stand when they talked about kids in their classroom who fell behind and lacked the support at school to help them catch up or simply disappeared from school.
“This is amazing. This is so fantastic,” Keefauver said when he learned about the decision. “I felt confident that the judge would rule that way.”
Not everyone shared his confidence.
Lawyers for Attorney General John Suthers, who defended the state in the case, argued that the question of school budgets belonged in the Legislature, not the courts.
“It’s something we’ll continue to argue,” said Suthers spokesman Mike Saccone. “The attorney general is obviously disappointed in the ruling, however he’s not surprised. It clearly was tempting for the district judge to wade into this public policy debate, and that’s what she did.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s spokesman, Eric Brown, said the state almost certainly will appeal.
Opponents had argued the Lobato plaintiffs were trying to use the courts to get funding they could not win through the Legislature. Just last month, voters rejected a sales and income tax increase for schools.
The Legislature probably will not have to tackle the problem in its 2012 session, which begins Jan. 11, because Rappaport gave the state time to appeal before her ruling goes into effect.
Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, issued a brief statement.
“Paying for quality education for our children has always been a priority. The challenge in front of us now is providing a quality education in the face of ever-increasing entitlement spending,” McNulty said.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said the Legislature has done its best to fund schools for children.
“We need to come together to find a solution to thoroughly and fairly fund Colorado schools,” Shaffer said.
Alex Halpern, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, has been working on the case since 2005.
“There isn’t any way to say something that doesn’t sound stupid. I was very excited and very pleased,” Halpern said.
The Legislature has cut school budgets by nearly $1 billion since the recession hit in 2008, and Hickenlooper has called for another cut next year.
“Current economic conditions, however, are not the source of the school finance crisis,” according to Rappaport’s ruling. “They have made an unworkable situation unconscionable. But Colorado’s history of irrational and inadequate school funding goes back for over two decades.”
Specific to Montezuma-Cortez schools, Rappaport noted that only half of kindergartners have gone to preschool, the district lacks money for full-day kindergarten for all kids, teachers have had four years of salary freezes and furloughs, and teacher salaries are much lower than in New Mexico.
The district also is on a four-day week because of tight budgets, and many of its schools have leaking roofs and asbestos problems, according to the judge’s ruling.
Former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, appointed Rappaport to the bench in 2006.