State won’t seek court fees from parents in school funding lawsuitPIERRE — The state will not seek to collect legal fees from parents who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging South Dakota’s system for funding school districts, Attorney General Marty Jackley said Monday.
By: CHET BROKAW, Associated Press
PIERRE — The state will not seek to collect legal fees from parents who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging South Dakota’s system for funding school districts, Attorney General Marty Jackley said Monday.
Jackley said the state’s decision not to seek the money is partly because, if granted, the legal fees likely would be collected from the parents who had been named as plaintiffs in the case, or from the taxpayers of school districts that supported the lawsuit.
“I think this is a fair resolution for the state and the right thing to do,” Jackley said.
The schools had argued that the school funding system did not provide enough money to ensure that students received an adequate education, but the South Dakota Supreme Court earlier this month disagreed and upheld the constitutionality of the state’s system for funding school districts.
The high court said the lawsuit raised serious questions about the funding system, but the justices said the schools did not prove that the funding mechanism or funding level is unconstitutional. The ruling upheld a decision by a circuit judge who found the system is constitutional because it provides students with an adequate education that prepares them for life after high school.
Jackley said state law allows the prevailing party in a lawsuit to recover its costs for attorneys’ fees and for gathering evidence. The trial judge had ordered that those who filed the lawsuit pay nearly $60,000 plus interest to the state, and the state also spent another $147 on the appeal to the Supreme Court, he said.
But in this case, collecting the legal costs likely would mean that school districts would use tax money to reimburse the state for tax money that it spent defending the lawsuit, Jackley said.
Those who filed the constitutional challenge agreed not to file further lawsuits on school funding. The South Dakota Coalition of Schools, which has backed the lawsuit, also agreed not to file or financially support such a lawsuit in the next 10 years.
The Coalition of Schools, a nonprofit corporation that fights for education funding, was initially a plaintiff in the constitutional challenge, but it withdrew after state officials argued that the coalition could not legally sue the state because it represented school districts.
A handful of parents and students wound up being the suit’s official plaintiffs, but about 100 of the state’s 161 school districts supported the lawsuit and helped pay legal expenses. In a separate ruling two years ago, the Supreme Court said school districts could pay the legal expenses of the lawsuit, but neither the coalition nor individual schools were officially plaintiffs in the case.
Scott Abdallah of Sioux Falls, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said the state might not have been able to collect any legal fees anyway. That’s because the Supreme Court, while upholding the funding system, sided with the schools’ interpretation of a constitutional provision dealing with school funding, he said.
“I think there was a real question of whether the state was even entitled to pursue those costs under those circumstances,” Abdallah said.
Though the agreement forbids the parents involved in the lawsuit from filing a similar lawsuit and prevents the Coalition of Schools from being involved in such lawsuits for 10 years, other parents or individual school districts could still go to court to challenge recent cuts in state funding for schools, Abdallah said.
However, the school funding fight now is likely to return to the political arena.
School districts got no increase in state financial aid a year ago, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the Legislature this year cut state aid to schools by 6.6 percent as part of an effort to balance the state budget.
Education groups will ask the Legislature to increase financial aid next year. And education groups and organizations representing health care businesses are seeking a statewide public vote on a plan to raise the state sales tax to provide an estimated $175 a year for education and medical services for poor people.
“Now is the time for the state to focus on continuing to provide the necessary financial resources and cost-effective solutions for our children’s education, rather than continuing litigation,” Jackley said.