Schools’ Suit Against Idaho Thrown Out Judge Says State Not Required To Fund District Facilities
A district judge says the Idaho Constitution does not require the Legislature to provide money for local school district facilities.
Fourth District Judge Daniel Eismann dismissed a lawsuit this week by 17 school districts between Orofino and Bonners Ferry that sought state help in building or repairing Idaho schools.
Several superintendents had expressed confidence about the suit this week partly because legal precedent in other states favored school districts.
“There are many other states that do provide some help from the state level,” Post Falls Superintendent Richard Harris said late Friday, “and it’s disappointing that the state is not stepping up to take care of its obligation.”
The trial was scheduled to open in Boise Nov. 17 after a long-running legal battle over public school funding. The lawsuit started in 1990. In 1994, then-District Judge Gerald Schroeder ruled the lawsuit was meaningless because the Legislature raised public school appropriation 18 percent that year.
But two years later, the Idaho Supreme Court revived the suit, ruling the Legislature had done nothing to help school districts with building needs. A study funded by the Legislature said Idaho school districts were not able to keep up construction, estimating the need at $700 million at that time.
School officials have talked of a backlog of $740 million in recent weeks.
Eismann ruled on Thursday that the state constitution does not require the state to fund construction for local districts. Since there is no obligation to fund capital expenditures, there is no obligation to equalize those expenditures.
He also held it is not unconstitutional for districts to resort to override levies to fund operation and maintenance costs.
Attorney General Alan Lance, whose staff defended the lawsuit, called it an important victory for the state, supporting the tradition of local control and responsibility for public schools.
“The decision allows Idaho to refocus education spending decisions on education rather than litigation,” Lance said.
“It is unfortunate that tens of thousands of dollars funded by local taxpayers’ money was squandered on attorney fees in the courtroom when it could have been put to better use in the classroom,” Lance said.
It was filed by Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity, a coalition of about 25 school districts, mainly small districts, which hired Boise lawyer Robert C. Huntley to press the claim. Huntley is a former justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.
The original lawsuit covered broader issues of school funding. But after the 1996 Supreme Court decision, the focus of the lawsuit was narrowed to whether the state had to help local districts with facilities.
“Historically, school houses have been funded by taxes which the residents of the school district vote to impose on themselves,” Eismann wrote.
That’s the way school construction was paid for since Idaho’s territorial days until statehood in 1890, the judge said. The question then becomes did the framers of the constitution intend to require the Legislature to begin funding the purchase, construction and repair of school buildings, he said.
“The court concludes that they did not,” Eismann said in a 24-page ruling filed Thursday.
“If the people of the state of Idaho want to change the Idaho Constitution to require the state to fund school houses, they can do so,” he said. “They can likewise elect legislators who would vote to appropriate funds to construct or repair schoolhouses.
“Absent a provision in the constitution requiring that result, however, it is not the province of this court to require the state to provide such funding.”
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Staff writer Andrea Vogt contributed to this report.