ST. CLOUD — Former St. Cloud school board member Jerry Von Korff is planning to sue the state on behalf of St. Cloud NAACP for what he argues are constitutional violations for its underfunding of education.
Von Korff, an attorney at St. Cloud-based Rinke Noonan Law Firm, plans to file a complaint no later than Jan. 31. The complaint will demand the state fully fund the special education expenditures of the St. Cloud school district this legislative session.
Von Korff, who is handling the litigation pro bono, will talk about the lawsuit at the annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Jan. 20.
“The idea is it’s going to be a shock to the system to cause people to step back,” Von Korff said Thursday. “It’s pretty clear there’s something systemic going on where the courts need to do something.”
The lawsuit will name Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota Department of Education, its Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
The lawsuit will contend the state does not fully fund special education in the St. Cloud school district, which Von Korff says is unconstitutional in two ways:
- The state simply does not give the district enough money to cover required special education services in St. Cloud school district, which caused a deficit of about $12 million this year and is slated to increase.
- The underfunded — but mandated — costs cause the district to dip into its general funds. This causes the district to have even less money to cover the educational costs of other commonly disadvantaged students, including students of color, students eligible for free and reduced lunch (a common indicator of poverty), English-learners and students with dyslexia.
Those student groups commonly perform lower on state proficiency tests than student groups not identified as students or color or English-learners, for example.
Because of the special education cross-subsidy, the district spends 18 percent less per student than the state average on career and technical education, according to Von Korff. It also spends 75 percent less per student than the state average on activities.
But the district takes 45 percent more than the state average from each student to be able to pay for special education, according to Von Korff.
In a statement to the Times, Superintendent Willie Jett said in spite of the cross-subsidy the district uses its state funding to the “best of our ability to provide a world-class education for all students, including providing the highest number of Advanced Placement classes in the region and students graduating with scores comparable to neighboring districts.”
Jett emphasized the district will not be a party to the lawsuit but supports it.
“When we increase access for any student, we increase access for all students,” Jett stated.
Denise Fale, president of St. Cloud NAACP, said the local chapter of the NAACP has the support of the national organization regarding the lawsuit.
“We need to use the constitution to allow awareness that this is a major problem. It’s unconstitutional to leave children behind, especially children of color, children with dyslexia or other children who are not achieving,” she said. “That is unacceptable for that to be the status quo.”
Von Korff said two Minnesota lawsuits set precedent for this case. Minnesota Supreme Court rulings from Skeen versus the state in 1993 and Cruz-Guzman versus the state in 2018 affirm entities can sue the state regarding funding for adequate education.
In the Cruz-Guzman decision, the court reaffirmed Minnesota’s constitutional education clause demands an adequate education to all students and requires the state to provide enough funds to ensure an adequate education that meets all state standards.
The cross-subsidy does not only affect St. Cloud, Von Korff said. The statewide cross-subsidy has grown from about $175 million in 2003 to $672 million in 2017, and it is projected to grow to more than $800 million by 2021.
“Hopefully this will set a precedent to solve this problem for all school districts,” Von Korff said.
Outgoing 742 board members: ‘We cannot leave kids behind’
While the overall cost of educating students to meet state standards has not been clearly defined, the state has studied the issue.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed a blue-ribbon panel in 2007 to study the cost of educating students to meet state standards. The panel released a study that showed it would cost about $2 billion per biennium to accomplish that.
Pawlenty ultimately canceled the panel. Since then, the real value of the state’s basic funding formula has actually declined — by about $600 per student, Von Korff said.
Von Korff said he hopes Walz, who was sworn in as governor on Jan. 7, will be more receptive to meeting the state’s constitutional obligation regarding funding education.
“If Gov. Pawlenty couldn’t do it and Gov. Dayton couldn’t do it, let’s not give them any more time,” Von Korff said. “(The lawsuit) gives (Walz) leverage. He can say, ‘We’ve got to solve this problem and even if I didn’t want to, they are going to make me.'”
If you go
What: St. Cloud NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet
When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20
Where: River’s Edge Convention Center, 10 Fourth Ave. S
Tickets start at $55 and can be purchased online at www.eventbrite.com/e/st-cloud-naacp-unit-4054-annual-mlk-freedom-fund-dinner-tickets-53877747794.
The event celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day and black history. Jerry Von Korff of Rinke Noonan Law Firm is the keynote speaker and will present the upcoming lawsuit he plans to file against the state on behalf of the St. Cloud NAACP that will use the state Constitution to demand equal access to educational opportunity.