District judge rejects student fees

(UPDATED, 4:29 p.m., with statement from West Ada district.)

A West Ada school trustee is claiming legal victory over the district, in a 3-year-old lawsuit over student fees.

Russell Joki
Russell Joki filed suit over the student fees in October 2012. He was elected to the West Ada school board in May.

Russell Joki filed the case in October 2012, challenging fees he paid to West Ada schools on behalf of three grandchildren — one student at Meridian High School, and two kindergartners at Chief Joseph Elementary School.

Joki argues that the fees and school supply lists violate the Idaho Constitution, which requires the state to provide a free, common and thorough public school system.

In a 16-page ruling issued Monday, District Judge Richard Greenwood sided with Joki — and rejected the district’s claim that the fees were proper, since parents can seek a waiver if they cannot afford to pay the fees.

“(Parents) should not be forced to choose … whether one child may take advanced placement history or another take heavy duty diesel repair when they cannot afford both,” Greenwood wrote. “Nor should students or parents be required to seek charity, which may or may not be granted, to enable a child to take a class offered by a school district for credit toward graduation.”

While Greenwood sided with Joki on the constitutional issue, the case is not as sweeping as it was when it was filed 37 months ago.

At that time, Joki sued the state, then-state superintendent Tom Luna, the State Department of Education, the Legislature, 114 districts and one charter school. The case was gradually narrowed, leaving West Ada as the sole defendant.

With the ruling, Joki is eligible to receive $85 in reimbursements for fees paid on behalf of his high school-aged grandson, while Joki’s daughter, Sarah Holt, is eligible to receive $90 in fees Joki paid on behalf of his two granddaughters in kindergarten.

Joki, elected to the West Ada board in May, said he will meet later this week with his attorney, former state Supreme Court justice Robert Huntley. Joki said the Supreme Court might yet be asked to rule on the constitutionality of student fees. “Either side could appeal to the Supreme Court,” Joki said.

West Ada district spokesman Eric Exline said the district is still sorting out the ruling — which did not expressly ban the district from collecting fees.

“The Idaho Constitution provides for a system of thorough and free public education,” Exline said in a written statement. “Our district, and many others, think that in today’s world thorough includes a broad number of classes – computer science, professional technical, engineering – that have additional costs. How to fund these opportunities is the challenge for a school district like West Ada. How to apply this ruling in terms of fees and costs is a policy decision of the board. Whether to appeal is also a decision of the board.”

Joki, elected to the school board in May, has recused himself from trustees’ discussions of the case.

More reading: Click here to read Joki’s news release on the ruling.