New fed lawsuit challenges Idaho school funding

Two lawyers are suing every school district in Idaho in federal court, the next step in their quest to push for increased education funding.

Robert Huntley, a former judge and Democratic politician who helped to craft Idaho’s sales tax law as a state House member in 1965 who is now a lawyer in Boise, has filed numerous suits over the years challenging Idaho’s school funding system. He was the lawyer in the 2012 case Joki v. State of Idaho, in which a state court held the West Ada School District violated the Idaho Constitution by charging fees for elective classes and for kindergarten. The suit led some districts, including Idaho Falls School District 91, to revamp their fee schedules. Huntley also was the lawyer in a similar suit, also in state court, against the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.

Co-counsel on this latest federal suit is Jason Wood, an Idaho Falls lawyer who also was co-counsel with Huntley in a similar suit filed in November challenging Bonneville Joint District 93’s registration fees. That suit is still in the state courts, although Wood said it may be consolidated with this latest federal lawsuit.

One impetus for this latest suit, which was filed late Wednesday, is that the West Ada and Pocatello cases have led to conflicting rulings at the state district court level. Wood said the judge in the West Ada case ruled the plaintiffs were entitled to be paid back fees they already had paid, while the one in Pocatello said they weren’t.

The suit argues Idaho’s school funding system violates the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, by taking people’s property — i.e., money — unlawfully in the form of fees for classes and school supplies. It cites previous state court rulings in Joki and a 1970 case in Minidoka County in arguing the fees are illegal.

While the suit targets these fees, the goal, Wood said, is to force the Legislature to raise school spending. Wood and Huntley believe inadequate funding has led to a situation where Idaho is not fulfilling its mandate under the state Constitution “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

“They seem to just kind of wink and nod at the Idaho Constitution and its requirement that they provide a free, adequate and thorough … public education for its citizens,” Wood said.

The fees in question total an estimated $20 million a year, according to a cover letter accompanying the lawsuit Wood and Huntley sent to school districts. Wood hopes a large judgment will force the state to confront the issue.

“We don’t do this with joy,” Wood said. “The school districts don’t have the money to pay such a judgment.”

The cover letter blames the addition of sales tax exemptions over the years for what it argues is inadequate education funding.

“School leaders and patrons should insist that the Governor and the Legislature honor their constitutional duty to properly fund education,” the letter says. “We are hopeful this lawsuit will give them the impetus to do so.”

The plaintiffs are two parents from the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District and one from Bonneville plus their children, all of whom were plaintiffs in the previous state court lawsuits against their respective districts. However, Wood hopes to get the suit certified as a class action, representing all of the students and parents in the state.

The defendants are all of the state’s individual school districts, not the state itself or the state Department of Education. Wood said this is because the state and its agencies are immune from being sued in federal court under the 11th Amendment.

Lawsuit Complaint by Jeff Robinson on Scribd

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.