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Judge to hear arguments in January in school funding case

A judge will hear arguments early next year on whether Idaho's school fees are unconstitutional, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone. The lawsuit, from former Nampa school district superintendent Russ Joki and a group of parents and grandparents, contends that Idaho's schools are charging fees that violate the state Constitution's guarantee of a free public education. A judge will hear arguments Jan. 10 on Joki's motion for a summary judgment; he's also filed reports from two experts backing his claims, saying Idaho's school funding has sharply declined over the last 25 years, worsening problems that prompted the state's school funding system to be declared unconstitutional in 2005. "If the Legislature's system of funding was unconstitutional in 1999, as found by the Supreme Court in 2005, it is even more so today," one of the reports states. Click below for Boone's full article.

Idaho man asks judge to rule in school fee lawsuit
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A judge will hear arguments early next year on whether Idaho's school fees are unconstitutional.

Russell Joki, a former Nampa Schools Superintendent and teacher at the University of Idaho, sued the state in October in Ada County's 4th District Court contending that school fees for some classes, supplies and activities violate Idaho's constitutional promise of a free public education.

Last week Joki asked Judge Lynn Norton to issue a summary judgment — deciding the case without a trial — in his favor, and the judge will hear arguments on that motion Jan. 10.

The state has also filed a motion in the case asking that the lawsuit be dismissed. Attorneys for the state contend that Joki must first sue individual school districts before he can sue the state.

Joki, who has named several school districts as defendants along with the state, says several facts in the case are undisputed, including the fact that 4th District Judge Deborah Bail already ruled in 2005 that Idaho lawmakers had failed in their constitutional duty to provide a public education by failing to provide adequate funding for school buildings.

Joki's attorney, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, has also submitted testimony from two experts backing Joki's claims.

Frank Gallant, an economist and the head of Gallant Analytics in Boise, says Idaho hasn't enacted any legislation that would fix the constitutional deficiencies in the state's education funding plan that Bail found back in 2005. In fact, Gallant claims in the court filing, just two years after Bail's ruling Idaho leaders used legislative slight-of-hand to pass the Property Tax Relief Act, which they passed off as a commitment to funding K-12 education but which actually further dismantled education funding.

Idaho's total public school expenditures have declined over the last 25 years from an average of just over 34 percent, Gallant said, to just over 23 percent.

"The fact is that, rather than providing legislation to render the current system of funding Education into a 'constitutional' status, the Legislature has, since the December 2005 ruling ... further exacerbated the unconstitutionality of the education funding system of the State of Idaho by further debasement of funding available to schools," Gallant wrote.

Richard Slaughter, an economic consultant who served as Idaho's chief economist in the early 1980s and who testified as an expert witness in the earlier school funding lawsuit, also filed a report for Joki contending that school funding has dropped dramatically — so much that per-student support this year is equivalent to the per-student support level Idaho had in 1999.

"If the Legislature's system of funding was unconstitutional in 1999, as found by the Supreme Court in 2005, it is even more so today," Slaughter wrote in a filing with the court.

Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, representing the state, has asked that the lawsuit be thrown out. Kane contends Joki's claims fall under Idaho's Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act, under which plaintiffs must first try to resolve problems at the local level with state intervention coming only as a last resort.

The state maintains the act requires Joki to first sue his local school district — and not the state — and that because he hasn't taken that step, the lawsuit must be thrown out.

While the act grants the state the right to intervene in lawsuits against school districts if it so wishes, in this case neither the Legislature nor Idaho Schools Superintendent Tom Luna are choosing to do so, Kane told the court. Rather, he said in a court filing, the state simply wants to remain on the service list for court filings so Idaho attorneys can monitor the case on the Legislature's and Luna's behalf.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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