Supreme Court rules against N.M. school districts in funding 4-17-07

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against the Zuni and Gallup-McKinley County school districts, which had alleged the U.S. Department of Education unfairly deprived them of $20 million a year for their predominantly American Indian students.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, rejected the northwestern New Mexico districts' arguments that federal education officials deliberately shortchanged them by using the wrong public school funding formula.

The Zuni district, on Zuni Pueblo, and the adjacent Gallup-McKinley County Public Schools, which includes a large amount of Navajo land, argued that the federal government failed to follow a funding formula that provides aid for districts in which there is a large federal presence, such as a military base or Indian reservation, that makes it difficult to raise local tax dollars.

The state of New Mexico is allowed to take the federal money and redistribute it through an equalization formula.

``It (the Supreme Court ruling) basically means the loss of $17 million annually for our district alone,'' said Karen White, superintendent of the Gallup-McKinley County district.

Zuni sued the state in 1998 in an attempt to keep the federal money. The Gallup district later joined the lawsuit.

The districts said Congress was clear in a 1994 statute, and that they are owed millions of dollars.

The federal government contended the two districts wanted the U.S. Department of Education to use a formula that would produce funding inequity among states.

New Mexico and 54 of its 89 school districts opposed the lawsuit, contending the adjustment the districts sought would disrupt funding equity statewide.

``It is good to have this lawsuit put to rest so that we are not distracted by it and can focus on the education of our students,'' state Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said Tuesday in a statement. ``New Mexico has one of the most equitable public school funding formulas in the country, and we will continue to distribute these resources in an equitable fashion.''

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court, said the department's ``calculation formula is a reasonable method that carries out Congress' likely intent in enacting the statutory provision before us.''

Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens also were in the majority in a case that did not come out along ideological lines.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in dissent that ``this case is not a scary math problem; it is a straightforward matter of statutory interpretation.'' Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas dissented.

The 41 public schools in the two districts lie deep in Indian Country. More than 80 percent of students in the Gallup-McKinley district and all the students in the Zuni district are Indian.

The districts said they needed money to more quickly repair or replace crumbling buildings, to pay teachers a premium to live and work in remote areas and to provide additional academic programs their students need.

``We would like to be able to offer incentives for teachers to come to isolated, rural areas,'' White said. ``It's a challenge to retain teachers and administrators.''

``It'll be great to give more (rural) kids more practical experiences - take them into cities and run programs for them,'' she said.

An attorney for the Gallup district, George Kozeliski, said the school districts now have to weigh their options, including the possibility of asking for a re-hearing.

``So nine years of work and you get within one vote, it's just disappointing,'' he said.

An administrative law judge initially ruled in the state's favor. That ruling was affirmed by the U.S. education secretary.

In December 2004, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the districts' challenge; the districts promptly asked the full court to review that decision.

The 10th Circuit Court upheld the funding formula in February 2006 on an evenly divided decision. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last September.

The case is Zuni Public School District No. 89 v. Department of Education, 05-1508.