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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides school fees case [Updated]

In a ruling posted on its website late this afternoon, the Indiana Supreme Court has reached a decision in Frank Nagy, et al. v. Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation.

The 19-page, 4-1 opinion was written by Justice Rucker, with Justice Sullivan dissenting (p. 18). Some quotes:

The question presented is whether the mandatory $20 student services fee imposed on students enrolled in a school corporation violates Article 8, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution. We conclude it does. * * *

Where the legislature—or through delegation of its authority the State Board—has identified programs, activities, projects, services or curricula that it either mandates or permits school corporations to undertake, the legislature has made a policy decision regarding exactly what qualifies as a part of a uniform system of public education commanded by Article 8, Section 1 and thus what qualifies for funding at public expense. And of course the legislature has the authority to place appropriate conditions or limitations on any such funding. However, absent specific statutory authority, fees or charges for what are otherwise public education cost items cannot be levied directly or indirectly against students or their parents. Only programs, activities, projects, services or curricula that are outside of or expand upon those identified by the legislature—what we understand to be “extracurricular”—may be considered as not a part of a publicly-funded education. And thus a reasonable fee may be assessed, but only against those students who participate in or take advantage of them.

In this case the $20 fee that EVSC imposes on all students is deposited into its general fund and is used to offset the costs of such things as: a coordinator of student services, nurses, media specialists, alternative education, elementary school counselors, a drama program, a music program, speech and debate programs, academic academies, athletic programs, and a police liaison program. But either the legislature or the State Board has already determined that all such items are part and parcel of a public school education and by extension qualify for public funding. * * *

In essence, the very programs, services, and activities for which EVSC charges a fee already are a part of a publicly-funded education in the state of Indiana. However, this conclusion does not preclude EVSC from offering programs, services or activities that are outside of or expand upon those deemed by the legislature or State Board as part of a public education. The Indiana Constitution does not prohibit EVSC from charging individual students for their participation in such extracurriculars or for their consumption of such services. However the mandatory fee EVSC imposed generally on all students, whether the student avails herself of a service or participates in a program or activity or not, becomes a charge for attending a public school and obtaining a public education. Such a charge contravenes the “Common Schools” mandate as the term is used in Article 8, Section 1 and is therefore unconstitutional.

Conclusion. We reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand this cause for further proceedings.

From J. Sullivan's dissent:
Justice Rucker has produced a scholarly and erudite recounting of the history of Article 8, Section 1, of the Indiana Constitution from which we will all benefit. Particularly interesting (and important) is the Court’s account of the historical distinction be-tween “free schools” and “[s]chools . . . wherein tuition shall be without charge.” * * *

Because the trial court found that the things for which the fee was im-posed were things that, to use the Court’s formulation, were “outside of or expand[ed] upon those identified by the legislature” as part of the constitutionally commanded uni-form system of public education, I believe that even under the Court’s construction of Article 8, Section 1, the fee was permissible.

Here is an AP summary of the opinion.

The Nagy case was argued before the Supreme Court on Nov. 23rd, 2004. See this ILB entry from Dec. 11, 2004 and this one from Aug. 22, 2005 for background and links.

[Updated] INDIANA EDUCATION INSIGHT reports that "The 4-1 ruling is likely to send shock waves across the state, since many school districts have turned to charging students supplemental fees to offset budget deficits. The extra income has been used to pay for everything from the salaries of school librarians to the cost of fine-arts and alternative schools."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 30, 2006 04:15 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions