Former Nampa superintendent sues state over Idaho school fees

BOISE, Idaho (AP) A former Idaho school district superintendent has filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing public schools are violating the state constitution by charging students fees for what is supposed to be a free education.

The Spokesman-Review reports former Nampa superintendent Russell Joki is spearheading a class action lawsuit seeking the refund of nearly $2.4 million in fees families paid for registration and school supplies he argues the schools should be providing.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in 4th District Court in Ada County, names the state, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, the Department of Education, the state Legislature and school districts statewide.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Idaho attorney general's office, declined comment because they had not seen the lawsuit. The State Department of Education also declined to comment.

Joki said his twin granddaughters were each charged $45 to register for kindergarten this year, the money to cover field trips, school and art supplies and milk for snacks. Joki's grandson, a high school junior, had to pay $85 in fees at Meridian High, for chemistry, art and sports medicine classes as well as for "junior class dues," he said.

Schools may offer hardship exemptions to the fees, though he says none were ever mentioned to him. Still, he maintained that's not the point.

"There shouldn't be the asking in the first place," Joki said. "Hardship shouldn't be part of the equation in attending free public schools."

The lawsuit also targets the school supplies lists given to Idaho parents before the start of every school year. The lists are of sometimes brand-specific items that parents are expected to purchase for the school year, such as colored pencils and crayons, reams of paper, boxes of tissue and dry-erase markers.

"These supply lists are a substitute for essential educational materials that the district needs to provide," Joki said. "Instead, the burden has been placed on parents and patrons."

The Idaho Supreme Court has considered similar issues before. A 1970 decision found that a $12.50 textbook fee for high school students was unconstitutional because school books are a fixed educational expense like teacher salaries or building maintenance. In the same ruling, the court upheld a $12.50 fee for extra-curricular activities, but said the school district couldn't refuse to give transcripts to graduates who hadn't paid the full fees.

Joki, who was a teacher and administrator in Coeur d'Alene and a superintendent in the Nampa School District from 1980 to 1985, contends the supply lists and fees for milk and other supplies are akin to the illegal textbook fees.

"I don't think it passes the constitutional test at all," Joki said, "and I think someone has to raise that question."

If Joki prevails, the $2.4 million in refunds would have to come either from school districts or a supplemental appropriation from the state Legislature. Idaho's education budget is already crimped after three straight years of budget cuts, and the state is already embroiled in an election debate over school reform laws that sought to shift funding priorities.


Information from: The Spokesman-Review