Denver court rejects dismissal of education funding lawsuit

Photo: Tim Macdonald, Dwyer lawsuit
Tim Macdonald, co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state of Colorado claiming that lawmakers aren't following the wishes of voters in slashing education funding.

A Denver trial court has rejected the state of Colorado’s request to dismiss a lawsuit that has major implications for how much money school districts get from the state.

In June, a group of educators, parents and school districts filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado that seeks to enforce Amendment 23, a voter-approved measure that called for more school funding.

“We believe this is a good day for the children and voters of Colorado,” said Kathleen Gebhardt, the co-lead attorney on the case. “We believe that the trial court found correctly that when the voters put something in the constitution, those words should mean something. And the words in the constitution clearly support a minimum increase in funding to provide all opportunities in the state.”

Voter mandate

Voters approved Amendment 23 in 2000 after Colorado had fallen behind other states in education funding. Amendment 23 required, at minimum, that the state gradually catch up to 1988 funding levels and then hold steady, even in times of economic downturn.

Lawmakers did this for a decade. But in 2010 – deep in the throes of the recession – they reversed course and began cutting. Lawmakers used a complex legislative maneuver called the “negative factor” that allowed them to cut almost $1 billion each year from public schools.

Plaintiffs believe it violates Amendment 23’s language and intent.

“The opportunities that have been lost to children across the state as a result of this legislative maneuver have been devastating,” Gebhardt says. “We’re hoping that going forward we can start to restore those opportunities for these kids.”

Last year lawmakers put $110 million towards the “negative factor,” but school districts argued that amount wasn’t enough to restore programs and teachers that were cut during the lean years.

The Colorado Attorney General's office is evaluating the decision and will discuss it with the parties named in the lawsuit, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado's commissioner of education.

Complex funding system

The school funding pie consists of many parts. The biggest part is what’s called “base” student funding, how much the state gives districts for each student. The rest of the pie consists of extra money districts get depending on how many “at-risk” students a district has, how big the district is, and other factors.

The legal tussle centers on which part of the pie Amendment 23 reflects. The plaintiffs argue it applies to all school funding, the whole pie. The state disagrees.

Its motion for dismissal read: “Amendment 23 does not refer to any other portion of the finance formula. It refers to the statewide base per pupil funding … leaving no question whatsoever that component of the finance formula — and that component only — must at least keep pace annually with the rate of inflation.”

Plaintiffs countered that the defendant’s motion contradicts both the language and voter intent behind Amendment 23.

The lawsuit now moves to Denver District Court, where plaintiffs must prove why they believe the negative factor violates Amendment 23.