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Court Rejects Reimbursement Over Unfunded School Mandates

Times are tough, a California appellate court says, and the judiciary cannot compel state lawmakers to come up with nearly $1 billion to reimburse unfunded education mandates imposed on school districts.

But in a partial victory for school districts, a panel of the California Court of Appeal said they could seek to temporarily get out of mandates not fully funded by the state.

The mid-level state appellate court ruled in a lawsuit brought by the California School Boards Association, the San Diego Unified School District, the San Jose Unified School District, and others. The plaintiffs say they are owed more than $900 million over a several-year period for costs associated with state-mandated programs such as AIDS education, pupil health screening, criminal background checks, and teacher incentives.

"Currently our state is experiencing an extreme budget crisis with a budget deficit estimated to be more than $20 billion," the appellate court said in its Feb. 9 opinion in California School Boards Association v. State of California. "Any money a court would direct to the school districts would reduce funds available for other obligations and implicate funding priorities and policy-making decisions. These decisions are for the legislature."

Because a state commission identified a number of education programs as mandates, and the California Constitution requires that such mandates be funded, state lawmakers have sought since 2002 to appropriate as little as $1,000 statewide for each program. The state claims it is deferring full payment of the costs until some later date, a practice identified in court papers as the "Education Credit Card."

The court rejected the state's arguments that such partial payments mean the mandates don't qualify as "unfunded."

"By attempting to pay for the new programs with a 'credit card' with no fixed date for full payment, the State is shifting the actual costs of these mandates to the local school districts," the court said.

Also, the court ruled that school districts can seek relief from the unfunded mandates in separate judicial proceedings and receive a declaration that they need not fulfill the mandate for one year at a time.

But on the big-ticket item sought by the school districts, reimbursement of more than $900 million from the state, the appellate court said no.

"An order requiring the State to pay its claimed $900 million mandate debt from existing funds would improperly elevate the judiciary above its coequal brethren, upset the delicate system of checks and balances, and stand the separation of powers clause on its head," the court said.

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