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Wed., May 29, 2013, 12:05 p.m.

Judge narrows student fee lawsuit, tells parents to go to small claims court

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Idaho’s school funding system, in part because families are charged fees for various aspects of instruction, has suffered a major blow, after District Judge Richard Greenwood on Friday dismissed all but one school district from the suit, and said parents who object to fees in their districts could just file actions in small-claims court. Reporter Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a full report here. Russ Joki, the lead plaintiff, told Richert, “This is not a solution at all, and makes a mockery of the right to a free public education.”

Joki, a former Nampa School District superintendent, contended that fees he was required to pay for his grandchildren’s education violated the state Constitution, which requires the state to provide a system of free, common schools. Greenwood’s ruling dismissed 65 school districts from the lawsuit, leaving only the Meridian School District, to which two of the plaintiffs, including Joki, had directly paid fees. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Judge trims Idaho school fees suit to 1 district
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho judge dismissed dozens of public school districts from a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of forcing students to pay fees, saying the plaintiff in the case doesn't have standing to sue them all.

Fourth District Judge Richard Greenwood's decision leaves just the Meridian School District, Idaho's largest public school district, as target of the complaint originally filed last October by Russell Joki, a former school superintendent at the Nampa School District.

Greenwood ruled Joki has standing to sue only within the Meridian district, where he resides and pays fees on behalf of his grandson.

"There is no allegation, other than apparent interest in education statewide," that connects Joki to the other districts, Greenwood wrote in his 24-page decision.

In March, Greenwood already dismissed the state from the lawsuit, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

In this decision issued late Friday, Greenwood also rejected Joki's bid to have the lawsuit certified as a class-action case, a move that, had it succeeded, would have included all kindergarten through 12th grade students in Idaho public schools this year.

"The plaintiffs have failed to make a sufficient showing that there are questions of law or fact common to the entire class," Greenwood wrote. "All the districts appear to have different fee schedules. Some charge for items for which others don't charge."

Joki said Wednesday he was disappointed with Greenwood's latest ruling but plans to pursue the remaining case against Meridian.

In particular, he said Greenwood's suggestion that individual parents who feel wronged by the fees — he said his grandson's total more than $100 annually — could pursue their grievances in small claims courts was impracticable.

Requiring families to pay fees is not only onerous and unconstitutional, Joki said, but it also has the potential to force students whose parents don't have the means to choose courses that don't have a surcharge, potentially closing them out of opportunities available to more-affluent children.

"It's discriminatory," Joki said in an interview. "I think parents are sick and tired of this. They expect a free public education. To have to open their wallets, when they take kids to public school, to register their kids for public course ... is a violation of the Idaho Constitution."

Meridian spokesman Eric Exline didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Like the other school districts including Boise's, Meridian also had sought to be dismissed from the complaint.

However, Greenwood wrote that Joki's claims against it amount to a "distinct, palpable injury in the form of allegedly unconstitutional fees assessed by Meridian School District," giving him sufficient standing to bring his claims forward.

The next hearing in the case is June 28, on whether the state of Idaho — including Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna — should be reinstated as a defendant, as Joki and his lawyer, former Supreme Court Justice Bob Huntley, are seeking.

Copyright 2013 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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