Educators in Routt County surprised, disappointed by court ruling on school finance lawsuit
May 28, 2013
Steamboat Springs — The Colorado Supreme Court’s proclamation Monday that the state’s school finance system is constitutional was met with surprise and disappointment from many educators here in Routt County.
In a 4-2 decision, the court ruled against the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. Colorado case that was followed closely by educators across the state and had potential implications for how schools here are funded.
Taylor Lobato, who graduated from Center High School in the San Luis Valley, was one of several plaintiffs in the suit that argued the state was underfunding its schools, including hers.
Her cause was bolstered two years ago when a Denver District Court ruled in favor of the suit, but that decision was reversed Monday.
"It’s pretty devastating and completely unexpected," Paula Stephenson, the executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, said Tuesday afternoon about the decision after she attended a press conference where Lobato reacted to the news. "It was worse than any worst-case scenario we came up with."
Education leaders who supported the suit like Stephenson said it would have forced the Legislature to do a study about how much it takes to adequately educate a child and then work to address discrepancies in how much each district receives for its students.
Lobato said her school didn’t have enough textbooks for all of its students, among other things.
Opponents of the suit worried about the decision’s potential impact on the taxpayers.
According to The Denver Post, the state attorney general’s office said if the suit succeeded, it could have "required the state to raise taxes by 50 percent or see K-12 education consume 89 percent of the general fund budget."
The Post also reported that although no price tag was attached to the Lobato suit, plaintiffs estimated the shortfall in public education funding was as high as $4 billion, with an additional $18 billion needed for facility repairs and upgrades.
Other educators in Routt were hopeful the case at least would spur the Legislature to look into allocating more money for public education.
Like Stephenson, South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader said he was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling.
"I’m really disappointed because I don’t think the funding is equitable in the state," he said. "We were hoping (this court case) would change the way schools are funded."
He pointed to school districts’ varying abilities to provide financial support for themselves through property tax increases as an example of that inequity.
Steamboat Springs School Board President Brian Kelly said that he was surprised by the decision but that he never was hopeful the court case would have any financial impact on Steamboat in the short term.
"Because there never was any money attached to it, it’s almost like it was more of a moral thing," he said.
He added that more important than how much each school district receives is how it spends its resources.
"What gets tricky about it is there’s a lot of practical evidence out there that shows it’s not always how equally you fund school districts but how school districts spend the money that has a lot to do with results," he said.
Still, he said one of the biggest impacts of underfunding schools could be a struggle to attract and maintain teachers alongside an improving job market in the private sector.
With Lobato decided, much still remains uncertain in the realm of Colorado school finance.
The decision came a week after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a major school finance bill that seeks to change how districts in the state are funded and to address some of the inequity in funding.
The changes will be made only if a ballot initiative can secure an estimated $1 billion in additional revenue for schools through a statewide tax increase.
The bill is supported by the heads of the Hayden and South Routt school districts, but educators in Steamboat remain leery of the effort.
"The bill is so big and so complicated, we’re still concerned about what we don’t know yet," Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks said.
Kelly said he expects the School Board will discuss the bill and the upcoming ballot initiative this summer and fall before deciding whether to adopt a resolution voicing support for or opposition to the legislation.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com