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All sides hustle to tell Lobato stories

The three parties in the Lobato v. State school finance lawsuit have been scrambling to tell their stories ahead of Monday’s start of the trial, which promises to be a wonkish five weeks of expert testimony on funding, achievement stats, research studies and other fine points.

Children’s Voices, the non-profit law firm representing most of the plaintiffs, closed the pretrial festivities Sunday morning with an event on the Capitol’s west steps, Colorado’s traditional site for rallies, protests and political announcement.

Defendant Gov. John Hickenlooper and his lawyer, Attorney General John Suthers, got the jump on those media outreach efforts Thursday with a news conference in the governor’s wood-paneled office.

Lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund went before the cameras Friday morning under the trees outside the Department of Education on East Colfax Avenue to tell their side of the story.

In between events, participants in the case made the rounds of newsrooms and meeting rooms to talk about the case.

The Children’s Voices event on Sunday featured a “human graph” of schoolchildren standing up and down the Capitol steps to illustrate school funding trends, using a long black ribbon to represent national per pupil spending over a several years and a red ribbon going down the steps to represent Colorado stats.

Lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt, arguing the need for the suit, said, “The state continues to ask people to do more with less and less. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Theresa Wrangham, a Boulder Valley parent and plaintiff in the case, called the state’s school finance system “completely detached from the needs of children.”

Superintendents from the state’s largest district and one of its smallest also argued that Colorado schools need more financial support. Noting all the education reform legislation of recent years, Jeffco’s Cindy Stevenson said, “Now we’re asking the state to step up to the constitutional requirements” for thorough and uniform education.

George Welsh of the Center School District in the San Luis Valley said, “Our education finance system is broken.” He noted that in his community a $13,000-a-year paraprofessional position “is considered a good job.”

Children’s Voices has hired Mark Stevens, former communication director for CDE and for the Denver and Greeley districts, to coordinate media relations for the trial. The group has a website and is starting to post Tweets about the case.

On Thursday Hickenlooper and Suthers did their best to argue that a plaintiffs’ victory would lead to an unacceptable squeeze on the state budget and would decimate other state programs. “If we lost this decision the consequences would be devastating,” he said.

“But when I step back and look at the [budget] reality we face,” forced spending on education “is incorrect.”

Hickenlooper tried to show his sympathy for the plaintiffs, saying, “I feel very strongly in some ways as the plaintiffs do” and “I’m not fighting against more funding for education.”

Previewing an argument the state is expected to make in the courtroom, Suthers said increased spending doesn’t necessarily “advance the quality” of education.

Both men argued that it’s not the role of the courts to dictate school funding. “It’s up to the people and the legislature to decide what to do about it,” said Suthers.

The plaintiffs’ case centers on the question of whether the state’s current school funding system meets the state constitutional requirement for a “thorough and uniform” education system.

Suthers referred to the constitutional clause as “this 1876 phrase” and asked “What applicability does that have in 2011?”

The attorney general said, “Our job is to make her [Judge Sheila Rappaport] feel very uncomfortable” about the consequences of a ruling for the plaintiffs. “Either way it’s going back to the Colorado Supreme Court.

On Friday, MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa made the argument that Colorado’s school funding system creates special problems for students who are low income and English language learners.

“All children can succeed if given sufficient educational opportunity,” he said, but schools are stretched too thin to ensure that outcome and are forced “to rob Pablo to pay Paul. … They shouldn’t have to make those tough choices.”

The MALDEF team is representing parents in four high-poverty districts – Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan – and in its case will argue that the current system doesn’t provide enough funding for English language learners, the full range of at-risk students and preschoolers and also doesn’t provide enough facilities funding to ensure all children have safe and healthy schools.

As to Hickenlooper’s and Suthers’ fears, Hinojosa said, “The sky’s not going to fall” if the plaintiffs win their case.

Hinojosa appeared with lawyer Marisa Bono and Sheridan parent Maribel Payan, who read rapidly from a prepared statement in Spanish. Daughter Gracie, a seventh grader, spoke briefly in English but was clearly nervous about being in front of the cameras.

EdNews preview of the trial