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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as Colorado Tentatively Settles Facilities-Finance Case

Colorado Tentatively Settles Facilities-Finance Case

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Colorado legislators have agreed to set aside $190 million over 11 years to pay for school construction and repair projects in the state's neediest districts.

The money was approved as part of the settlement of a lawsuit against the state by families in six poor rural districts whose schools have been beset by leaky roofs, dangerous electrical wiring, and other problems.

Gov. Bill Owens

Gov. Bill Owens and state Attorney General Ken Salazar announced the settlement late last month, after the second day of what was expected to be a five-week trial on the lawsuit in state court in Denver.

"No one would be well-served by a protracted court case, and I believe this proposed settlement will be of benefit to all Coloradans," the governor, a Republican, said in a statement.

Ken Salazar

The class action was filed in 1998 on behalf of 20,000 schoolchildren in the Lake County, Sanford, Aguilar, Las Animas, Pueblo, and Centennial school districts. It alleged that schools in those districts had unsafe wiring and fire escapes, inadequate heating systems, leaky roofs, and other dangers.

The suit argued that the state constitution requires the state to provide and maintain adequate school facilities, and it challenged the state's school finance system as the fundamental reason that poor districts could not maintain their school buildings.

Peg Portscheller, who left in March as the superintendent of the Lake County district, said the plaintiffs had "mixed feelings about the settlement."

"As we crafted this legal action, we have come to believe these districts have many more millions of dollars in capital needs," said Ms. Portscheller, who now works for the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally financed research facility in Denver, but was involved in the settlement negotiations on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Her former district has some 1,300 students and includes the old Rocky Mountain mining town of Leadville, southeast of Denver. The district has scraped for funds in recent years to repair aging roofs and school boilers, and still has far to go, Ms. Portscheller said.

"In one sense, $190 million over 11 years is but a pittance," she added. "But you have to weigh that against whether you are going to win in the courts."

The 'Right Thing'

Under the proposed settlement, the state would not admit that it has a constitutional obligation to build or maintain schools.

"I have vigorously defended the constitutionality of Colorado's school finance act," Mr. Salazar said in a statement. "However, I believe we should seize the opportunity to end this litigation not because we have |a legal obligation to do so, but because as a policy matter, providing assistance to our poor school districts is the right thing to do."

To fulfill its part in the settlement, the legislature had to approve the 11-year spending plan for the school repair aid. The Senate gave final approval to the measure April 28, just days before the legislative session ended. Gov. Owens is expected to sign it.

Under the settlement and the legislation approved late last month, the state will provide $105 million over 11 years in direct grants for emergency health and safety priorities. Another $85 million will be set aside over the same period for the state's existing school construction and repair fund.

The measure says the state would make the payments as long as its budget reserves remained above $80 million.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the settlement would put a dent in tax cuts.

But even with the spending for settlement, the legislature finished its session last week by approving $385 million in tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the settlement must be approved by the plaintiffs and the state trial judge who was hearing the case. Their approval was expected.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs released a statement saying that the settlement "quickly makes money available for the most severe problems in schools. For the first time, Colorado will have a legal mechanism requiring the state to address health and safety problems in schools."

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 24

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