Rural South Dakota Schools Win Major Victory

Last Updated: August 20, 2009

This article appeared in the August 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
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A coalition of primarily rural school districts suing the state over its funding system has won a major victory in the South Dakota Supreme Court. Last month, the Court held that the South Dakota Coalition of Schools can participate in and help fund the school finance lawsuit.
The decision reverses a judgment by Circuit Judge Lori Wilbur who ruled last year that school districts’ participation in the lawsuit was illegal. That ruling followed calls by Governor Mike Rounds for the districts to be removed from the suit and for their financial records to be audited.
After that ruling, the Coalition had withdrawn from the lawsuit, which proceeded with parent and student plaintiffs represented pro bono by Attorney Scott Abdallah.
In its reversal of that prior ruling, the state high court held that because the school districts have been named the recipients and beneficiaries of various education funding streams, they have the ability to take legal action when they cannot properly administer their duties as recipients of those funds, that is, to educate the children of South Dakota.
Governor Rounds has expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling and issued public statements that the state legislature, not the court, determines funding for schools.
But the school districts bringing this case are not asking for specific funding levels. Instead, they are asking for a court ruling on whether the finance system is unconstitutional. This distinction was essential to the districts’ success in this case.
The issue about who could bring the funding suit was litigated separately from the merits of the case. This past spring Judge Wilbur separately ruled that the state’s funding system needs improvement but is not unconstitutional. Wilbur refused to find an education quality standard in the state constitution that would have held the state accountable for major discrepancies in schools, including course offerings, student services, teacher salaries, and building maintenance.
Abdallah says that decision will be appealed.
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