Judge narrows student fee lawsuit

And then there was one: a single Idaho school district facing a lawsuit over student fees.

On Friday, a district judge dismissed 65 school districts from a case alleging that student fees violate the state Constitution — and its mandate that the state “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Boise-based District Judge Richard Greenwood allowed the case to continue against the Meridian School District, since plaintiffs Russell Joki and Sarah Holt have paid fees to Meridian schools.

Greenwood’s 26-page ruling does not address the constitutional questions about the student fees — raised by the plaintiffs and their attorney, Robert Huntley, a former state Supreme Court justice and gubernatorial candidate. But the decision does, in effect, further dismantle the case by narrowing its scope.

Greenwood ruled that plaintiffs living in the Meridian School District could not bring a class action suit against dozens of Idaho school districts over fees they did not pay personally. “There is no allegation, other than apparent interest in education statewide, connecting the plaintiffs (to) any of the other defendants,” Greenwood wrote.

Greenwood also ruled that a class action suit over student fees was unworkable, on several grounds. He said it would be cumbersome, and costly, to manage a case involving dozens of plaintiffs spread across the state, and said the issue could more easily be addressed through individual cases in small claims court.

Said Joki Wednesday: “I am concerned that his ruling offers as a solution to parents that they file small claim court actions to recover fees. This is not a solution at all and makes a mockery of the right to a free public education.”

Greenwood’s ruling also contained a twist on the argument of “uniformity.” He said the fees are, by nature, not uniform. Some districts charge fees for some academic courses and extracurricular programs while others don’t, and the amount of the fees vary widely. As such, the impact of fees vary widely from district to district, and would vary widely from plaintiff to plaintiff.

On Wednesday, Joki maintained that the fees violate the constitutional mandate of a free public education. “While we continue the legal battle, I urge parents to take action by refusing to pay fees and to tell their legislators to wake up to the sorrowful state of K-12 education.”

The ruling came less than two months after a hearing in which Greenwood questioned whether Joki had legal standing to sue over fees outside Meridian.

The lawsuit has been spearheaded by Joki — a former Nampa school superintendent who has paid fees on behalf of his grandson, a Meridian High School student. But since the suit was filed in October, its reach has been narrowed considerably. In March, Greenwood removed the state, the Legislature, the State Department of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna from the case.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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