Lawsuits: Student fees represent a form of ‘coercion’

The student fee issue could be headed back to the courts.

In separate but nearly identical two class action lawsuits, plaintiffs demand that the West Ada School District return some $2 million in unconstitutional student fees collected in 2014-15, and “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in refunds from the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District.

The fees “amount to a form of coercion to pay for essential and normal elements of a free public education,” former state Supreme Court justice and gubernatorial candidate Robert Huntley wrote in the lawsuits.

The West Ada district had no comment on the lawsuit, and the Pocatello-Chubbuck district did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The lawsuits revisit an ongoing legal dispute.

In November, District Judge Richard Greenwood said West Ada class fees were unconstitutional. In response, the state’s largest district eliminated its student fees — leaving a $600,000 hole in an already tight 2016-17 budget. The plaintiff in the 2012 lawsuit, Russell Joki, won a seat on the West Ada school board in 2015; he resigned earlier this year. Joki’s attorney, Huntley, has long criticized the state’s school funding formula.

In the latest lawsuits, Huntley says the Legislature has “grossly underfunded” the two school districts, by eroding the state’s sales tax with a matrix of exemptions. However, he says, student fees violate the state Constitution, which mandates a system of “free common schools.”

The lawsuit challenges both student fees and school supply lists. Districts sometimes say school supply lists are voluntary, Huntley said — but the requests place social pressure on teen-age students and cash-strapped parents, leaving them wrestling with “ a real conflict of conscience.”

The plaintiff in the West Ada lawsuit, Molly Hyde, is a parent in the district and a former employee in Huntley’s Boise law firm. In Pocatello, the plaintiffs are Mike Zeyen, the father of three children; and Rachael Booth, the mother of two children.