Attorney Kathy Gebhardt, left, and Taylor Lobato, plaintiff in a lawsuit over school funding, speaks with media outside of the Colorado Supreme Court in March 2013. Gebhart argued in Lobato v. state that the state violated the state Constitution by underfunding K-12 education to the point that it created significant inequalities. (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)
Boulder Valley school board member Kathy Gebhardt has fought for better K-12 education funding as the lead or co-lead lawyer in Colorado’s school finance cases over the past 20 years.
That pro bono work recently was recognized with the Demetrio Rodriguez Champion of Education Justice Award, presented at the annual Litigators’ Workshop sponsored by the Education Law Center.
“It felt really nice to be honored by my peers,” said Gebhardt, the executive director of the nonprofit law firm Children’s Voices. “That felt really special.”
The award is named for Demetrio Rodriguez, who advocated for educational opportunity and was the plaintiff in the Rodriguez v. San Antonio U.S. Supreme Court case, which led to the filing of school finance cases in 46 states.
Along with her legal work, Gebhardt also is president-elect of the Colorado Association of School Boards, serves on multiple state and national boards, teaches law and education policy as an adjunct professor, and is a National Education Policy Center fellow.
Kevin Welner, a CU education professor and director of the National Education Policy Center, said he’s impressed by her knowledge, creative thinking and “immense honesty.”
“There’s a genuineness and earnestness about her work for children,” he said. “Everyone seems to trust her, whether it’s a rural Republican superintendent or a progressive Boulder politician.”
Gebhardt’s first school finance case was Giardino v. Colorado Board of Education.
She argued for the plaintiffs that deteriorating school buildings in some school districts violated the constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools.”
In 2000, the trial court approved a settlement that required the state to commit $190 million for school repair and construction in the neediest districts through the Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, grant program.
Gebhardt continued her advocacy work by becoming a BEST board member. Though term limits mean this is her final year on the BEST board, she said, she plans to stay involved.
“I’ll continue to work with them and help them,” she said.
Her biggest school funding case, Lobato v. State, lasted eight years and was supported by all of the state’s school districts.
She argued that the state violated the state Constitution by underfunding K-12 education to the point that it created significant inequalities.
While the district court agreed, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2013 overturned that decision and ruled that the state’s school finance system was constitutional.
She also was a lead lawyer in the Dwyer lawsuit filed in 2014 arguing that the state was unconstitutionally cutting school districts’ funding, in violation of Amendment 23’s requirements, through the “negative factor.”
In 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled the cuts constitutional.
Though the two cases were unsuccessful, she said they helped move the conversation about the inadequacy of state education funding forward.
She added that although she’s not planning another lawsuit, she’s not finished with her advocacy on school finance issues.
“It’s just too important,” she said. “We have to fix it. In Boulder, we have the ability of our citizens to support our mill levies, but you don’t have to drive far to see really depressing situations in schools.”