Plaintiffs and Allies in Colorado School Funding Case Ask High Court to Uphold Ruling

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Plaintiffs in the Lobato school funding lawsuit were required to respond in court to the state’s appeal of their successful case. At last month’s filing deadline, Lobato plaintiffs had garnered a number of amicus ("friend of the court") briefs supporting their position. 

Last December, District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport found the state in violation of its constitution because of the way Colorado funds schools, agreeing with plaintiff claims that the formula leaves many poor and rural students with missing components of their public education, including kindergarten and gifted and talented programs. The trial court said that the formulas have no rational reason for doing so. In July, the state filed an appeal of the decision. See previous RSFN coverage here and here.

In the appeal, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the Colorado State Board of Education repeated their allegations that the Lobato decision would bankrupt other agencies in the state by forcing diversion of funds to education. These allegations were widely reported in the media. In addition, state defendants argued that the ruling is “nonjusticiable,” meaning it is a political question the courts should not address. Defendants also rallied amicus support for their arguments, including a brief from three former governors of the state.

In reply, the plaintiffs’ brief argues that the trial court was correct in finding that Colorado’s school funding formulas prevent many districts from teaching an up-to-date curriculum, put low-income students at a disadvantage, and fail to provide sufficient funding to make buildings safe in some districts. Their brief also addresses the allegations that Lobato is “bankrupting” the state and overstepping judicial authority by noting that the decision makes no specific order about spending or about how the Legislature should respond.

Along with the main brief, thirteen amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs’ position were filed with the Colorado high court. The briefs represent the formal views of nearly 50 individuals and organizations, including The Rural School and Community Trust.

Rural concerns

Rural Trust’s brief, filed with the pro bono assistance of Colorado law firm Kaplan Kirsch, argues that the Colorado foundation funding and categorical funds for schools do not include any factor to address specifically rural needs. It outlines five main areas where rural schools lack sufficient funding: facilities, personnel, instructional materials, technology, and transportation. The brief also notes that rural districts face unique challenges because they typically lack local resources to make up for state budget shortfalls. Because of these failures, the brief urges the state supreme court to uphold the trial court’s ruling.

Specifically the rural brief argues that capital construction funding is totally dependent on local property wealth, which is insufficient in many rural districts to conduct building repairs and new construction. Throughout the Lobato case, plaintiffs have pointed to crumbling rural school facilities that present health threats and danger to students. The brief cites evidence from school districts with no budget to fix facilities with asbestos issues, collapsing roofs, structurally unsound foundations, broken sprinkler systems in violation of fire codes, and without heat in winter or air conditioning or other ventilation in warm months.

The rural brief also argues that personnel funding in rural districts is significantly lower than urban and suburban schools, and that with sufficient state support, rural schools would be better able to attract qualified educators with proven incentives of increased salaries, scholarships, loan forgiveness, and housing support such as mortgage loans. In addition, the brief points out the severe shortages of special education teachers in rural districts as evidence of the state’s failure.

Further, the brief cites lack of general educational resources in many rural districts. These include such insufficient numbers of up-to-date textbooks that students are not allowed to take books home. They also include bandwidth inadequate to support distance education, which makes it impossible for some rural school to offer all of the classes required for college admission.

A final issue, which the brief discusses at length, is the state’s insufficient transportation funding for rural districts. The state’s transportation funding system does not account for the high costs of transporting children over large, sparsely populated areas in rural Colorado. The brief describes in detail the additional fuel costs and related maintenance costs of vehicles traveling many miles through districts.

Also joining Rural Trust on the brief outlining rural concerns were the Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services Association and the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus.

The State will have an opportunity to respond to the September filings, after which dates for oral argument in the Colorado Supreme Court will be set.

Read more:

Local coverage of last month's filings:

Detailed coverate of the various amicus briefs filed in the case:

Non-profit law firm representing teh plaintiffs in the case, led by Rural Trust Board Member Kathy Gebhardt:

Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.