By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE – A Laramie County District Court judge has denied the state’s motion to dismiss the Wyoming Education Association’s K-12 school finance lawsuit, but claims for punitive damages and attorney’s fees to discourage future Legislature underfunding were dismissed.
This doesn’t mean relief can’t be granted, such as an external cost adjustment and “review of the components of a quality education and updating the funding model and its funding level to reflect actual, current costs, as well as to provide funding for any innovations or changes in the nature of what constitutes a quality education.”
District Judge Peter Froelicher heard arguments in early November from Senior Assistant Attorney General Sean Towles and Pat Hacker, the attorney for the Wyoming Education Association.
He told stakeholders he would administer a ruling in the coming weeks, and his ruling was filed with the clerk Wednesday.
Froelicher ruled that the Wyoming Education Association has standing to bring a claim, and its members have a tangible interest in the outcome of the dispute.
“If the Court were to grant the relief requested, then the relief would have a practical effect on the WEA and its members,” the ruling said. “In addition, the Wyoming Supreme Court has previously found WEA has standing … on the basis that funding for education could have been impacted.”
The Wyoming Education Association filed its lawsuit against the state Aug. 18, under the belief the state was not properly funding public education.
Concerns were brought forward regarding an external cost adjustment and inadequately addressing inflation, reevaluating the “basket of goods” for security funding and accusations that the Legislature has not upheld its constitutional duty.
“Because there is a recognized, mandatory constitutional requirement to fully fund a complete, uniform and high-quality education for students in Wyoming, the Legislature has no discretion or option about whether to fully fund all components of that education,” the WEA’s complaint stated. “The Constitution requires that the Legislature ‘shall’ provide the funding.”
The complaint further said the Legislature can’t choose to inadequately fund education based on a claimed lack of revenue or availability of funds, as the Wyoming Supreme Court found in the Campbell I court case.
WEA President Grady Hutcherson said in a press release regarding the court’s denial of the dismissal that education in Wyoming is beginning to suffer, and students simply can’t be left waiting for adequate resources. He said they are grateful to the court for affirming the association’s ability to stand up on behalf of students, families and public schools.
“No one wanted this to come to litigation, but what spurred WEA to file this lawsuit in the first place is the fact that 95,000 Wyoming students are being shortchanged, as public schools are continuously being asked to do more with less,” he said. “WEA is proud to protect our shared societal interest in providing adequate resources for our students.”
Hutcherson now asks the court to hold the Legislature accountable to adequately fund public education.
WEA’s chief legal counsel, Pat Hacker, will continue to take on the future legal proceedings and has supported the association as a plaintiff in four previous school finance cases known collectively as the Campbell cases.
The state also lost a motion to dismiss in a previous case based on the argument the WEA lacked standing to bring the suit forward.
He said in a statement Friday that he appreciated the court’s deliberation on the state’s motion to dismiss, and is pleased it agreed it has proper standing to sue the state for failing to fund public schools adequately.
“Both as a prior plaintiff in landmark cases on education funding, and as an organization comprised of educators dedicated to advocating for students and public education for more than 100 years,” Hacker said, “WEA takes its obligation to protect students and schools very seriously. We look forward to explaining the merits of our case in court.”
The School Finance Litigation Division in the Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment by press time.