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Supreme Court to consider Lobato case

Posted: Wednesday, Mar 6th, 2013

Center High School graduate Taylor Lobato, daughter of Anthony Lobato of Center, speaks to a Denver TV news reporter on the steps of the state capitol at the opening of the Lobato v. Colorado suit in Denver District Court in 2011. File photo by Teresa Benns

DENVER — Tomorrow the Colorado Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Colorado School Finance Case, Lobato v. Colorado, which originated with San Luis Valley residents and school districts.

The oral arguments will begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning and live video streaming can be accessed at www.courts.state.co.us/lobatovstate

After the case went to trial during the summer of 2011, District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport issued a decision in December agreeing with the plaintiffs that the state school finance system was unconstitutional in that it did not provide for a thorough and uniform system of free public education and guarantee local control. Rappaport held that the state’s system of paying for schools is unconstitutional because it’s not “rationally related” to the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

Her ruling also held that the system violates the constitutional guarantee of “local control” of instruction.

With this ruling, the court enjoined the current finance system requiring the General Assembly to adopt a system that “fulfills the qualitative mandate of the Education Clause and the rights guaranteed to the Plaintiffs thereunder and that is in full compliance with the requirements of the Local Control Clause.”  

The State Defendants stayed the injunction following an appeal.

The 67 plaintiffs include Center residents Anthony and Denise Lobato, for whom the case was named, whose children Taylor and Alexa were students in the Center Consolidated School District when the case originated several years ago. Parents and students from six school districts and another 21 school districts have joined the Lobatos, along with 27 plaintiff intervenors living in four school districts.

Plaintiffs argue that K-12 funding is underfunded by $3 billion. According to the Joint Budget Committee Appropriations Report 2010-11 and the Colorado Attorney General (AG), K-12 in Colorado receives 45.6 percent of the general fund or $3.2 billion of a $6.97 billion general fund. Plaintiffs also argue the state must provide additional capital funding of up to $17 billion.

If the plaintiffs were to win, the state would either have to raise taxes by at least 50 percent or have to devote 89 percent of the general fund budget to K-12 funding to meet this obligation, crowding out things such as Medicaid, unemployment assistance, transportation, public safety and higher education, according to the Attorney General.

The state’s appeal raises issues revolving around those court rulings and questions whether the district court erred and applied incorrect legal standards in declaring the state public school finance system unconstitutional and mandating that the state adopt and fund a thorough and uniform system of free public schools in compliance with the requirements of the local control clause. 

The case, however, is much more complex. It also includes a number of constitutional and other issues.

For example, the case outcome could alter the relationship between the people of Colorado and their government for decades to come, according to the AG. One of the plaintiffs’ main arguments is that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) must give way to the education clause so that taxes could be raised and revenues increased to meet the needs of the education clause without a vote of the people.

Plaintiff amicus briefs argue the court should “decline to address TABOR because the issue is not relevant to this stage of the case. The narrow question before this Court is whether the district court erred in finding Colorado’s school finance system violates the Education and Local Control Clauses of the Colorado Constitution.”

Other issues include the role of the courts, state mandates and education budget cuts and local control of schools.

“Of course our greatest hope is that the court lets Judge Rappaport’s original decision stand and the legislature finally engages in work to either design an education finance act that funds the system we have already designed, or designs a system of education that is based on the funds we have available,” said Center Consolidated School District Superintendent George Welsh in an email on Tuesday. “No matter what the verdict is we feel on some level we have already accomplished what we set out to do because the state legislature has already begun to have serious conversations about what equitable, adequate and sustainable education funding should look like.”

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