What’s next for school employees
“The move to the Supreme Court has cut anywhere from two months, optimistically, to two years, conservatively, from the appeal process,” said Pam Holmes Boyd, spokeswoman for the school district.
The change in jurisdiction has not changed the briefing deadlines in the
case, Boyd said. The school district’s deadline to file its opening brief is Friday. Michael Cacioppo then has 30 days to file his answer – Jan. 12 – and the district has 14 days to file a rebuttal brief – Jan. 26. At that point the arguments will be completed, and the case will be in the Supreme Court’s hands for a final decision.
Todd Huck, president of the Eagle County Education Association, said he also believes the fact that the Supreme Court has accepted the case will speed up the process.
“It will help us get to that outcome we all want,” Huck said, “get the money to the school employees. We hope, ultimately, that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor and I don’t see why it wouldn’t do it.”
Boyd said there is no specified time limit for a Supreme Court ruling.
“We do not know when a final decision will be handed down,” she said.
The school District has continued to collect 3D money – the cost-of-living increase voters approved in November 2001 – while the litigation has wended its way through the court system. The money is being held with the district’s reserves.
“It would simply be irresponsible to distribute the money while there is an active lawsuit,” Boyd said. “The Board of Education made this decision at the advice of the district’s legal counsel, but holding the 3D money in reserve does not indicate a lack of confidence in the case.”
A total of $6.2 million has been collected to date – $3.1 million
for each of the past two years. Some of that money has gone to employees because the cost-of-living money was paid during January, February and March of 2002, before Cacioppo filed his lawsuit, Boyd said. The amount paid out is about $500,000.
Distributing question 3D money, Boyd said, will require a massive logistical effort:
– It has been negotiated that teachers will get a flat dollar amount – $258 – per month. For full-time teachers, the current back pay tab is approximately $5,800. For other employees, the cost-of-living amount is 8 percent of salary and the back pay amount must be individually calculated.
– The Colorado Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA, the entity school district employees contribute to rather than FICA) will require individual transactions reflecting the amount of money earned and the amount deducted for every employee. Each transaction must notate the particular month affected. So, for example, if it takes 26 months before a final decision is issued in the district’s favor, a minimum of 26 individual transactions must be recorded for each employee to receive all of his or her 3D back pay.
– Last year the district sent out more than 1,000 W2 forms, so it may face more than 26,000 individual transactions to distribute 3D back pay. Further complicating the scenario, Boyd said, will be changes in employees’ hours or changes in their jobs, which affected salary and tax payment amounts.
Or the district would be compelled to turn the money back over to the state, if Cacioppo were to prevail.
The Colorado Supreme Court has decided to consider Michael Cacioppo’s appeal of voter-approved salary increases for Eagle County School District employees because the case could set a precedent for the entire state, court officials said Wednesday.
“They (justices) won’t indicate why they took it, but they typically pick cases that either set a precedent for the entire state or are a legal issue that is not yet resolved and needs to be clarified,” said Karen Salaz, spokeswoman for the state Court Administrative Office.
In February, Eagle County District Judge Richard Hart ruled in favor of the school district regarding Cacioppo’s lawsuit challenging the cost-of-living election approved by Eagle County voters in November 2001.
In March, Cacioppo appealed Hart’s ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals. The school district in October asked that the case be transferred to the state Supreme Court.
“Our attorneys believed that because the litigation deals with an election
issue, the Supreme Court is the proper jurisdiction for the case,” said
Pam Holmes Boyd, spokeswoman for the school district. “The Supreme Court justices concurred with this opinion and accepted the case.”
Cacioppo said he’s happy the case is moving to the Supreme Court.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I have achieved my goal of keeping my promise to see that the case went all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I understand I’m going to lose because we don’t have any constitutional rights in Colorado. And I wanted the public to understand that.”
Boyd said the school district believes the Supreme Court will uphold Judge Hart’s ruling.
“We look forward to presenting our case,” Boyd said. “For nearly two
years now, this litigation has affected the livelihood of more than 800
past and present employees and has thwarted the will of the people as
demonstrated by 3D’s victory at the polls.
“We have always maintained that both our ballot question and our TABOR
notice in the original November 2001 election complied with the law. We
are anxious to have this lawsuit decided so we can proceed with paying our employees for two years of back wages,” Boyd said.
Salaz said it could take months before the Supreme Court hears the case.
“It’s a slow process,” she said.
In the meantime, Cacioppo said he plans to sue the school district again. This time it will be for attempting to put him out of business, he said.
“I will file the lawsuit in federal District Court because the school district violated my constitutional rights,” Cacioppo said.
Clearing the law
Cacioppo declined to disclose how much the case has cost him. Although Hart didn’t award attorney’s fees to the school district – the school district’s legal fees add up to $99,000 – under Hart’s ruling, Cacioppo could be liable for court costs estimated at $10,000.
“During the November 2001 election, five other school districts in Colorado passed cost-of-living ballot questions,” Boyd said. “Eagle County School District and these other districts all used very similar ballot language. None of the other districts have faced a legal challenge, and all of them continue to collect and distribute their cost-of-living money.”
Cacioppo’s lawsuit against the district claims that the ballot language in Question 3D violated the Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
TABOR strictly regulates any tax increases and requires specific language for ballot questions. Cacioppo’s lawsuit claims that the district’s TABOR notice contained falsified dollar amounts and growth percentages, and that the ballot language was false and misleading.
In February, Hart rejected Cacioppo’s claims that the district exhibited a systemic disregard for the law in its development of the 3D ballot language and TABOR notice.
Hart ruled that when the district referenced financial data from the 2000-01 fiscal year rather than the 2001-02 fiscal year as the current fiscal year spending, it did so in error. And he ruled that the school district did present Eagle County voters the information they needed to make an informed decision, and that district personnel did not intentionally or deliberately try to mislead the voters.
“(The justices) feel it’s an issue that is hanging in there with implications larger than itself,” Salaz said. “There could also be an ambiguity in the law that needs to be cleared up.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.