BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A state judge has agreed to dismiss the state from a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the fees many public schools charge for classes and the legality of Idaho's overall education funding system.
Ruling from the bench, 4th District Judge Richard Greenwood sided with lawyers from the Attorney General's Office, finding that an existing statute protects the state from being involved at this point in the case.
Former Nampa Schools Superintendent Russell Joki sued districts across Idaho last year, alleging that the fees many districts impose for classes and supplies violate the constitutional promise of a free public education, and legislative tweaks to the funding formula over the years has exacerbated the problem. The state, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, the Department of Education and the Legislature were also named as defendants.
From the onset, lawyers for the state have argued that the case should be thrown out — or at least that state defendants should be dismissed — because Joki failed to follow procedure outlined in the 1996 Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act, or CBECA.
Amended in 2003 in response to a separate school funding lawsuit, the act requires anyone seeking to sue over certain educational issues to first take their case to the local district before getting the state involved.
"This is a case governed by CBECA ... and the state cannot be made a party at this point," Greenwood said. The state "may be in the future, but at this point I think the case needs to go forward on the claims that ... deal with the overpayment claims by the school districts."
In freeing the state from the case, the judge also dismissed the allegation that the state's system for paying for public schools violates the Idaho Constitution. Joki argued that Idaho schools are still primarily funded through an unequalized property tax, creating a system in which students in poor districts get dramatically less funding than those in wealthier areas.
But Greenwood's ruling does not change the school districts' role in the case or whether school fees are legal. Attorneys representing districts big and small across the state are also seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed; arguments on those motions are scheduled for April 1.
The lawsuit initially included all 115 of Idaho's public school districts, but so far, only 64 have officially been served with the complaint by Joki's attorney, former Idaho Supreme Court Judge Robert Huntley. In court Wednesday, Huntley agreed he would not seek to include the remaining districts in the case. Huntley is also seeking class-action status for the case, with those arguments also scheduled for April 1.
Joki, who also has grandchildren enrolled in public schools, says two of his grandchildren were each charged $45 last fall to register for kindergarten, money used to cover field trips, school and art supplies, and milk for snacks. Joki's grandson, a high school junior, had to pay $85 in fees at Meridian High for chemistry, art and sports medicine classes as well as for "junior class dues."
If granted class-action status, the lawsuit seeks the refund of nearly $2.4 million in fees families paid for registration and school supplies Joki argues the schools should be providing.
Huntley, who is working on the case pro bono, said he will consider appealing Greenwood's ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court.
"I think the state should be involved," Huntley said after the hearing. "But this has nothing to do with our first complaint ... that schools must stop levying unconstitutional fees."
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Joki's lawsuit. The judge approved that action Wednesday, but with the state no longer in the picture, the organization will reevaluate its future role in the case.
In its brief, ACLU attorney Ritchie Eppink argued that CBECA wrongly attempts to deprive judges of jurisdiction over school funding issues.