October 1, 2012 in Idaho

Idaho school fees challenged as unconstitutional

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - An Idaho grandfather and former school district superintendent is suing the state of Idaho and all its school districts, charging that cash-strapped schools are violating the Idaho Constitution by increasingly charging fees for what are supposed to be “free, common schools.”

Russ Joki’s twin kindergartner granddaughters were each charged $45 to register for kindergarten this year, and his grandson, a high school junior, had to pay $85 in fees to enroll at Meridian High. But a 1970 Idaho Supreme Court decision specifically found educational fees for public schools unconstitutional in the state.

“I don’t think it passes the constitutional test at all,” Joki said, “and I think someone has to raise that question.”

His lawsuit was filed Monday afternoon in 4th District Court in Ada County; it seeks class-action status on behalf of all schoolchildren and parents in the state of Idaho. In addition to Joki, plaintiffs include his grandson, for whom he is legal guardian; his daughter and her twin 5-year-olds; and 15 other individuals from around the state, all grandparents of Idaho public school students.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s office, said, “We’ve not seen the lawsuit at this point,” and added, “We’re certainly not in a position to comment.” The state Department of Education also declined to comment.

The lawsuit comes as Idaho is embroiled in an election debate over school reform laws that sought to shift funding priorities within the state’s crimped school budget, after three straight years of unprecedented budget cuts.

Joki, who served as superintendent of the Nampa School District from 1980 to 1985, said, “It’s at a time of great public debate on schools, and great economic stress on families.”

In addition to charging fees, Joki’s lawsuit targets Idaho schools’ practice of distributing lists of specific school supplies for parents to purchase, from specific brands of colored pencils and crayons to reams of paper, boxes of tissue and dry-erase markers.

“It’s occurring statewide,” Joki said. “These supply lists are a substitute for essential educational materials that the district needs to provide. Instead, the burden has been placed on parents and patrons.”

In 1970, the Idaho Supreme Court held, in the case of Paulson v. Minidoka County School District, that a $12.50 “textbook fee” the district was charging each high school student was unconstitutional. “School books are … indistinguishable from other fixed educational expense items such as school building maintenance or teachers’ salaries,” the court wrote in that case. “The appellants may not charge students fro such items because the common schools are to be ‘free’ as our constitution requires.”

The court, in its unanimous decision, upheld a $12.50 fee for extra-curricular activities, but overturned the school district’s policy of not providing transcripts for any graduate who hadn’t paid the full $25 in fees. A family who refused to pay the fee - and then found the school refusing to provide a transcript when their son applied to college - challenged it in court.

Robert Huntley, a former Idaho Supreme Court justice, is the attorney representing Joki. In the lawsuit, Huntley asked the court to refund one year’s worth of the fees charged to parents across the state - estimated at more than $2 million. The refund would have to come either from school districts or from a supplemental appropriation from the state Legislature.

“In contravention of the constitutional requirement to provide free common schools,” the lawsuit states, “the great majority of Idaho’s school districts, being grossly underfunded by the state legislature, have been engaging in the practice of levying fees upon the students and their families for various supplies and coursework, elective and otherwise, in violation of the Idaho Constitution.”

Joki is a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate and was a teacher and administrator in the Coeur d’Alene School District early in his career. After leaving the Nampa School District in 1985, he served as a school district superintendent in Oregon for 15 years, then returned to Idaho, where he’s taught graduate-level courses for the University of Idaho for the past 12 years to aspiring school principals and superintendents.

Joki said his 5-year-old granddaughters were charged fees said to cover field trips, school supplies, milk for snacks and art supplies. His grandson was charged fees for chemistry, art and sports medicine classes plus $10 in “junior class dues.”

“This became kind of a grandparents’ coffee topic,” he said.

Joki said schools may offer hardship exemptions to their various fees - though none were ever mentioned to him when he brought his grandkids to school registration - but said, “That’s beside the point. There shouldn’t be the asking in the first place. Hardship shouldn’t be part of the equation in attending free public schools.”


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