School district prevails in ballot issue lawsuit |

School district prevails in ballot issue lawsuit

Scott N. Miller

Deb Jordan’s family budget will get a bit of breathing room this summer.Jordan, a teacher at Red Hill Elementary School in Gypsum, is one more than 1,000 current and former Eagle County School District employees who will receive checks for back pay this summer, thanks to a decision handed down Monday by the Colorado Supreme Court.After more than two years of litigation, the state’s high court ruled for the district Monday in its legal battle with Avon resident Michael Cacioppo over a 2001 ballot issue. The issue, known as 3D, asked voters to raise their property taxes to fund pay raises for school district employees.Monday, the court ruled unanimously that Cacioppo missed a pair of state-imposed deadlines for protesting either ballot language or the results of the election. In fact, the court ruled only on the issues of the deadlines and their constitutionality, and did not address the other legal arguments in the case.The tax question, proposed the year state law changed to allow such measures, was approved by nearly 60 percent of district voters.Cacioppo, a longtime critic of the school district, complained almost as soon as he saw the draft language of the ballot measure. Cacioppo said it violated the provisions of a state constitutional amendment known as TABOR, which limits spending and the taxing ability of local and state governments. Cacioppo said in the summer of 2001 he would file suit over the constitutionality of the measure if it passed. In February 2002 he did.Cacioppo lost his initial case in District Court in Eagle. That decision was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The state’s high court has had Cacioppo’s appeal of the appellate court’s decision since last year.With the case over, district officials Monday were moving ahead with plans to distribute the money, and finalizing just how to do it. Linda Ruggeberg, an administrative assistant in the district’s business office, said employees might get one check, or as many as 28.The district suspended the pay raises in April 2002, just in case it lost the suit. Employees may receive one check for each month they’ve been on the district’s payroll since then, or might receive lump sums. For teachers, the amount could be more than $7,000 before taxes and retirement contributions are deducted. Ruggeberg said the district will also attempt to contact former employees, so they can receive back pay as well.No matter how the money is distributed, Jordan is looking forward to it.”Our budget is tight,” Jordan said. “It’s almost like a bonus.”While Jordan said she never planned on seeing the money, “I never forgot about it.” She said she plans to put some of the money in her son’s college fund and her own retirement fund, with perhaps some saved out for a family vacation.Berneil Bannon has firm plans for her back pay as well. Bannon, an art teacher at Battle Mountain High School, had just started work on a master’s degree when the 3D money started rolling in. She intended to use the extra cash in her paychecks to pay tuition as she went.When the raises were suspended, Bannon took out a student loan to finish her advanced degree. Now, she said, she can pay back a big portion of that loan in one shot.”I’m just in heaven,” she said Monday. “I’m just grateful that justice was served. It’s a big weight off my shoulders.”While the case was all about the money for a lot of employees, Cathy Strickler said the case was about more than checks. “It was about knowing that the voting system works, and that one person can’t step in and wreck it,” said Strickler, the registrar at Eagle Valley High School. “Mostly I’m just glad it’s over and everybody can move on.”While Cacioppo obviously wasn’t happy with the outcome of the case, he wasn’t all that upset, either.”As I predicted from the day I filed this case, I lost,” Cacioppo said. “This case is proving the point that our Constitution doesn’t mean what it says.”Still convinced of the merits of his argument, Cacioppo said the state’s high court acted as a party to the case on the side of the school district.”It’s in their best interest to weaken TABOR at every opportunity they have,” he said. “They now have a new way of changing our constitution without a vote of the people of the state.”Despite the loss, Cacioppo said he’d file his case again. “I held them accountable for almost three years,” he said. “I forced consequences down their throats… It cost them $117,000 in legal fees to cheat.”Despite the long fight, School Board Member Louise Funk said she’s gratified the district saw the case through to its conclusion, instead of coming to a settlement with Cacioppo.”We knew in our hearts we were doing the right thing,” said Funk, who has served on the board since before the case was filed. “We could have settled, but we won on the merits, and that feels good.” In a release issued by the district in the wake of the case’s conclusion, School Board President Scott Green also said he’s glad the case wasn’t settled out of court.”This has been an incredibly difficult two years for the school district’s teachers, secretaries, bus drivers and other employees,” Green wrote. “But during all that time, I never once received a single phone call from an employee urging the board to just settle the case and get everyone his or her money.”Gail Eaton, a 30-year district employee who worked in the Eagle Valley High School office, said mostly she’s just happy the case is over.”I never planned on getting (the money); I don’t count chickens before they’re hatched,” Eaton said. The case, though, “Is a reflection on all of us, that we did this for the right reasons and it worked. We’ll all reap the benefits of this.”

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