Kathleen Gebhardt, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs’ in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, has been named to a vacant seat on the state Capital Construction Assistance Board. The board decides on grants from the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt runs the non-profit Boulder law firm Children’s Voices and filed the original Lobato lawsuit in 2005. A Denver judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor late last year, finding the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. The case currently is on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. (Get more information in the EdNews Lobato archive.)

She was appointed by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, a legislative lame duck who currently is running for Congress in the 4th District.

Gebhardt said Tuesday evening that she didn’t seek the seat but that “several” members of the construction board had suggested her name to Shaffer.

Asked if she thought there was an sort of conflict of interest in joining a state board when she’s suing the state, Gebhardt said, “I struggled with that” but decided it’s not a problem. She said she will recuse herself in grant applications involving the 21 school districts that are plaintiffs in Lobato.

Gebhardt also was a lead attorney in another school-related lawsuit against the state, Giardino v. State Board of Education. That suit, filed in 1998, challenged the lack of state funding for school facilities. The case was settled in 2000, with the state agreeing to allocate $190 million a year over 10 years for school buildings. Those payments ended after the BEST law was passed in 2008.

Under the complicated formula created by that law, various members of the nine-person board are appointed by the State Board of Education, the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the minority leaders of the House and Senate.

Board members also have to represent various constituencies, such as different sizes of school districts, or have specific professional expertise in school design, construction and facilities management. The board’s conflict of interest policy requires members to recuse themselves on applications involving their districts or districts their employers do business with.

The vacancy filled by Shaffer is for “one member who has public school finance expertise and knowledge regarding public school trust lands,” in the words of state law. The BEST program receives a portion of revenues from school trust lands to finance its grants.

Mary Wickersham
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Mary Wickersham

Gebhardt replaces Mary Wickersham, an original board member who served as chair. As a researcher working with the Donnell-Kay Foundation, Wickersham laid some of the groundwork that led to the BEST law. She later worked as an aide to then-Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a key advocate for passage of the law. The treasurer’s office is responsible for setting up the financing of BEST projects. Wickersham, who now works for the Piton Foundation, recently resigned from the construction board.

Board members can serve up to three consecutive two-year terms. (Find out about other board members here.)

The board has one remaining vacancy, a position that is supposed to be filled by an architect and which is appointed by the governor. Another vacancy recently was filled with the appointment of Pete Hall, facilities manager for the Poudre school district.

The construction board and the Division of Public School Capital Construction Assistance are part of the Colorado Department of Education. The state board and education Commissioner Robert Hammond are named as defendants in the Lobato case.

Some construction board members recently discussed whether the body should file a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the Lobato plaintiffs. But the matter was dropped after the state attorney general’s office advised the board it couldn’t do that because it’s part of a state agency.

Another state agency, the University of Colorado Board of Regents, has intervened in the Lobato case on the side of the state, at the urging of Attorney General John Suthers. The regents are an elected board.