Court must balance all of state’s needs

Think funding for schools and other state needs is difficult now? It could become even more problematic, thanks to a Monday ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court said it’s not up to the Legislature alone to determine whether schools in Colorado are adequately funded. Courts have a say as well.

But, as the state looks to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from this year’s budget and those for upcoming years, any court finding that schools are not adequately funded could mean that even more money will have to be carved out of budgets for other state functions, from colleges and universities to prisons.

The ruling stems from a case in which 22 poorer school districts in the state, most of them in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorad, argued that Colorado isn’t meeting the requirement in the state Constitution to provide a “thorough and uniform” system of school finance.

In particular, the plaintiff districts claimed that state funding falls short in meeting the needs of disabled, poor and minority students, especially in those school districts with low property values.

Both a Denver District Court judge and the Colorado Court of Appeals rejected that argument, saying that determining the adequacy of school funding was the purview of the state Legislature, not the courts.

The three justices who dissented in Monday’s decision agreed. They said the courts would be stepping into the policy arena if they attempted to establish what “thorough” funding means in the state Constitution. And setting policy is a legislative function, not a judicial one.

But the four justices in the majority said the Legislature would have “unchecked power” if the courts did not have authority to review how well lawmakers complied with constitutional funding requirements. Without court oversight, they suggested, the Legislature might ignore its constitutional responsibilites for school funding.

That may be theoretically possible, but it isn’t borne out by recent history. Colorado lawmakers have struggled mightily since the 1970s to fashion and periodically revamp the school finance system to make it as equitable as possible.

That doesn’t mean school funding is equal throughout the state. School districts in poor rural areas such as the San Luis Valley will never have property tax money to compete with wealthy districts such as Pitkin County or Cherry Creek, where high property assessments have kept coffers flush.

The Legislature has tried to alleveiate those differences by supplementing property tax money with state general funds. But even that is far from perfect.

School districts the size of District 51 in Mesa County have been deemed to be the most efficient in the state. They have been rewarded for that efficiency by receiving less state money per capita than other districts, both larger and smaller.

On top of all this, voters in Colorado passed Amendment 23 on the 2000 election ballot, which mandated ever-increasing funding for public schoools.

Based on Monday’s ruling, which sends the lawsuit back to Denver District Court, a few judges in the state will now attempt to determine whether this complicated funding system is adequate under the terms of the Constitution. They will need the wisdom of Solomon to succeed.

Courts certainly have the authortity to determine whether other branches of government are complying with constitutional provisions. But schools aren’t the only need in this state as it deals with very difficult budget problems.

We hope the courts will consider all state requirements as they examine school funding, and not mandate something that further shackles the ability of our elected state representatives to balance those needs.


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