DENVER (CN) – Budget cuts that have reduced school funding in Colorado by $3.7 billion over the last four years are constitutional, a divided state supreme court ruled.
Parents of public school students sued the state of Colorado, accusing it a manipulating the formula for allocating finding for education. They were joined in the lawsuit by the Colorado PTA, the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, and multiple school districts.
The plaintiffs say the state withheld $894 million in the 2014-2015 school year, and almost $1 billion in 2012 -2013.
They complain the dramatic reductions in funding are a direct violation of Colorado’s Amendment 23, which was adopted in 2000 and guarantees, they contend, that school funding per pupil will go up and inflation increases.
But by a 4-3 vote on Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with the state, concluding that the amendment promises only that “base” funding will be protected from budget slashing.
Colorado uses a “total program funding” system of financing local school districts, of which the “base” funding makes up only a part, the majority said.
“Plaintiffs allege that the state has improperly reduced statewide base per pupil funding in violation of Amendment 23. In so doing, they confuse ‘base’ with ‘total,'” the assenting justices, said Chief Justice Nancy Rice, writing for the majority.
“If voters had wished to increase ‘total’ per pupil funding rather than ‘base’ per pupil funding, they would have said so,” she wrote.
These total program funds, the court held, are entirely at the mercy of Colorado’s “negative factor” – a school funding formula which allows the state to put a cap on how much Colorado has to pay school districts every year.
The negative factor had a polarizing effect on the Colorado justices, as the three who dissented — Justices Monica Marquez, William Hood III, and Richard Gabriel — wrote a contrasting opinion that reflected a desire to uphold the voters’ intentions, rather than honor the cut-and-dry wordage.
“Voters surely did not intend the annual increases to statewide base per pupil funding to be pointless-yet according to plaintiffs’ allegations, the negative factor renders them so,” Marquez wrote for the dissenters.
“Although the state faced extraordinarily difficult fiscal choices during the recent recession, plaintiffs contend that enacting cuts to education funding that circumvent a constitutional amendment was not one of the legislature’s options. They have pleaded sufficient facts to support a claim that the negative factor violates Amendment 23,” she added.
Janet Tanner, a member of the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education, expressed disappointment with the ruling in a written statement.
“We were hopeful that the Supreme Court would correct the State’s interpretation of the Amendment 23 negative factor funding reduction that is inconsistent with the intentions of voters when they approved Amendment 23,” Tanner said. “However, we will continue to do the best we can with the limited resources available in order to ensure success for all students.”
Colorado governor John Hickenlooper agreed with the court in an interview, acknowledging the difficult decision, but agreeing that the alternative would have been “challenging.”
“If we had to compensate in the budget for the negative factor – in other words, take that money out of different sources like higher ed, health care, you go down the list – it would be a very challenging exercise to do it,” Hickenlooper said.
Boulder-based attorney Kathleen Gebhardt, representing the plaintiffs, was unavailable for comment, as was a representative of the Colorado Attorney General’s office.
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