Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Increasing Number of Legal Actions Challenge Constitutionality of Budget Cuts

This from ACCESS:

As states continue to reduce school aid, plaintiffs have turned to an array of legal arguments in the hope of preserving educational resources. Advocates and school districts in various parts of the country filed challenges last month. In Arizona, a lawsuit contends that the Legislature’s failure to implement annual inflationary adjustments to school funding, as required by a 2000 ballot initiative, violates a constitutional voter protection provision. In Illinois, the Chicago Teachers Union has alleged that class size increases violate safety codes. Plaintiffs in New Jersey have invoked the state Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, claiming that the Governor’s budget violates specific court orders.


In June, five school districts, the Arizona Education Association, the Arizona School Boards Association and several voters filed a special action before the state Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Legislature’s fiscal year 2011 budget, which did not include inflationary adjustments to foundation school funding levels. Petitioners in Cave Creek Unified School District v. Martin argue that the budget fails to fulfill the requirements of Proposition 301, a 2000 ballot initiative that requires the Legislature to annually increase funding by the rate of inflation (or 2%, if it is lower), and consequently, constitutes a violation of Article IV, Part I §I(6), the voter protection clause of the state constitution, which bars the Legislature from repealing laws passed through referenda, or amending said laws “unless [it] furthers the purposes of such measure and at least three-fourths of the members of each house of the legislature”, or diverting funds set aside for these initiatives.

At issue in the case is an ambiguity in the language of the statute, which stipulates that the State make upward adjustments in “base level [support] or other components [of education funding],” or both. The Legislature claims that its actions meet constitutional muster, as this year’s budget includes an increase in transportation funding—one small component of school aid. In their complaint, plaintiffs appeal to both the history of the referendum and precedent to argue that the budget bill constitutes an illegal amendment of Proposition 301. They appeal to precedents and other statutes where “or” and “and” have been construed to mean the latter, and explain that the Legislature’s use of “or” as a disjunctive would produce irrational results. There “can be little doubt,” the complaint explains, that voters expected “that [the measure] would increase education funding so as to offset the effects of inflation.” By choosing to increase funding for only one component, the Legislature “must always…[decrease] funding for education in constant dollars,” thus flouting the voters’ will. The State, they argue, must maintain general funding for education and aid for other components.

The Supreme Court will decide to accept or reject the special action on September 21. Petitioners ask the Court to prohibit respondents, State Treasurer Dean Martin and the State of Arizona, from implementing the budget, and request that the Court rewrite the budget. If they prevail, districts could receive an additional $61 million, compared to the considerably lower $5 million increase they received under the State’s interpretation of Proposition 301. Arizona consistently lags behind the rest of the nation in per-pupil school funding, ranking 49th according to a report released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau.


The Chicago Teachers Union, on June 8th, filed a lawsuit against Board of Education of the City of Chicago in the Circuit Court of Cook County challenging defendants’ decision to increase class sizes to 35 students per classroom apparently in response to the fiscal crisis.

Plaintiffs charge that the presence of 35 students and 1 teacher in each classroom “pushes…rooms past the safety threshold,” in violation of the Municipal Code of Chicago, §13-56-310. The plaintiffs seek an order from the Court prohibiting the Board from increasing class size.

New Jersey

During his brief tenure in office, first-term New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has repeatedly targeted education funding in his effort to close revenue gaps and balance the state’s budget. In February, he issued an executive order freezing $475 million in school aid. His order directed school districts to tap into surplus accounts in order to offset the loss in state funding, a move sharply criticized by advocates of equity and adequacy. More recently, Christie proposed a budget that would reduce education funding by almost $1 billion.

Last month, the Education Law Center (ELC), on behalf of the Abbott v. Burke litigants, filed a motion requesting the state’s high court to block implementation of the 2010-2011 budget, which fails to fund schools at the levels required by the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). In Abbott XX, the high court declared that special funding for the Abbott districts was no longer necessary and upheld the constitutionality of the SFRA, arguing that it provided for a “thorough and efficient education for every child.” The Court warned, however, that providing adequate aid was a “continuing obligation,” and ordered the state to provide full funding each year and conduct a review of the formula after its third year of implementation. If “any deficiencies of the constitutional dimension” were to arise, it would remediate.

ELC lawyers argue that the state has violated the constitution as it has failed to meet its funding obligations, and consequently, foreclosed the possibility of a three-year review of the formula’s “full implementation.”

Last spring, in an unrelated case, the Perth Amboy School District argued that Christie’s executive order violated the separation of powers doctrine. The state appellate court upheld Christie’s action on the grounds that the funding cut was within his powers in a time of “fiscal emergency.”

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