Hargrave v. Kirk

Decision Date07 May 1970
Docket NumberNo. 68-463-Civ.-T.,68-463-Civ.-T.
Citation313 F. Supp. 944
PartiesRobert H. HARGRAVE et al., Plaintiffs, v. Governor Claude R. KIRK, Jr., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida

Hershel Shanks, Allan I. Mendelsohn, and Robert M. Perce, Jr., of Glassie, Pewett, Beebe & Shanks, Washington, D.C., Richard Frank, Tampa, Fla., and David Rubin, Washington, D.C., for plaintiffs.

Rivers Buford, Jr., Gen. Counsel, State of Florida Bd. of Education, Tallahassee, Fla., for defendants.

Before DYER, Circuit Judge, LIEB, Chief District Judge, and KRENTZMAN, District Judge.

DYER, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs1 by this class action attack, under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutionality of Section 23, Chapter 68-18 Florida Laws, enacted at the Extraordinary Session of 1968 of the Florida Legislature, F.S.A. § 236.251,2 commonly referred to as the "Millage Rollback Act," which provides that any county that imposes on itself more than ten mills in ad valorem property taxes for educational purposes will not be eligible to receive state minimum foundation program (MFP) funds for the support of its public education system. Plaintiffs seek to enjoin the defendants3 from enforcing the statute.

A single District Judge dismissed the suit. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's jurisdictional rulings and concluded that the complaint presented a substantial constitutional question. It remanded with directions to convene a three-judge District Court. Hargrave v. McKinney, 5 Cir. 1969, 413 F.2d 320. After answer was filed, both parties moved for Summary Judgment on the ground that there was no issue of material fact. We agree that the case is ripe for decision.

Florida's public schools are financially supported by statewide and local taxation. Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funds are appropriated by the state and distributed to the counties in accordance with certain indices of the educational needs of a particular county. This program is not under attack. By its calculations the MFP determines the cost of funding a minimal education system in a county. From this total cost there is deducted a certain minimum amount which each county must raise itself if it desires to receive state MFP funds. The difference is the amount of MFP funds which the state appropriates to the county.

The other source of funds for the support of public education is derived from local taxation. Local taxes are of two kinds. The first, known as County Millage, is imposed by the School Board. It cannot exceed ten mills. Fla.Const. (1968 Revision), art. VII, § 9, F.S.A. The second, known as District Millage, must be authorized by a vote of the freeholders and then may be imposed by the School Board. Ibid. Additionally the Federal Government contributes about two or three percent of public education funds in Florida.

Under the Millage Rollback Act, the District and County Millages cannot exceed in the aggregate ten mills, plus the millage necessary to provide district building and bus funds, funds for debt service and funds for junior college support. These latter funds are not involved in, nor are they material to, a determination of this case.

Prior to the passage of the Millage Rollback Act, the voters in 24 counties had authorized their School Boards, for the school years 1967-1968 and 1968-1969, to impose District Millage in addition to the ten mills of County Millage which could be imposed by the Board without voter authorization. With the passage of the Act, each of these 24 counties rolled back its millage to the ten mill limit for the 1968-1969 school year to avoid losing state MFP funds. The result was to reduce the amount of money derived from local taxes for educational purposes which counties could raise for themselves. Measured by the reduction in millage from the year before the Act was passed the loss exceeded $50,000,000.00. See Appendix.

The plaintiffs contend that the Millage Rollback Act violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the limitation is fixed by reference to a standard which relates solely to the amount of property in the county, not to the educational needs of the county. The plaintiffs argue that the Act promotes no compelling state interest, and is arbitrary and unreasonable because it fails to provide Florida children with an economically equal educational opportunity.

The defendants counter by contending that the difference in the dollars available does not necessarily produce a difference in the quality of education; that the relief sought cannot remedy the evil alleged; that the Act does not constitute a blanket prohibition against a county levying additional ad valorem taxes because it may choose to do so and forego its MFP funds; and finally, that on the principle of comity we should abstain from considering the case in deference to a state court proceeding, filed subsequent to this suit, attacking the validity of the Millage Rollback Act.

We take up defendant's last argument first. We find no special circumstances in this case that would persuade us to apply the doctrine of abstention. The fact that a state remedy is available is not a valid basis for federal court abstention. Monroe v. Pape, 1961, 365 U.S. 167, 183, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed. 2d 492; McNeese v. Board of Education, 1963, 373 U.S. 668, 671, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 10 L.Ed.2d 622; Zwickler v. Koota, 1967, 389 U.S. 241, 251, 88 S.Ct. 391, 19 L.Ed.2d 444. There can be no doubt in this case about what the statute means. It defies any interpretation that would or could avoid or modify the constitutional question. In such a case it is the duty of a federal court to exercise its jurisdiction. Zwickler v. Koota, supra; Harman v. Forssenius, 1965, 380 U.S. 528, 534-535, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50; cf. Reetz v. Bozanich, 1970, 397 U.S. 88, 91, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 73, 76; Wright v. City of Montgomery, Alabama, 5 Cir. 1969, 406 F.2d 867, 871. Nor does the fact that the instant case involves a state tax scheme bring it within the proscription of 28 U.S.C.A. § 1341 or the abstention doctrine of Great Lakes Dredge & Dry Dock Co. v. Huffman, 1943, 319 U.S. 293, 63 S.Ct. 1070, 87 L.Ed. 1407. Section 1341 prohibits federal courts from enjoining the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under state law where the state law provides an efficient remedy; Great Lakes requires abstention where only declaratory relief is sought with regard to a state statute relating to the assessment, levy or collection of taxes. The considerations underlying Section 1341 and the Great Lakes abstention doctrine are inapplicable here because the plaintiffs in the instant case are not attempting to strike down an assessment and collection scheme but, on the contrary, are attempting to obtain the right to have such a scheme.

Turning now to the defenses asserted, it may be that in the abstract "the difference in dollars available does not necessarily produce a difference in the quality of education." But this abstract statement must give way to proof to the contrary in this case. For example, with the enforced millage reduction in 1968-1969, the approximate dollar reduction in Broward County alone exceeded $1,300,000. As a result of this, the Board of Public Instruction of Broward County informed the State Superintendent of Schools that it could not balance its budget for the 1969-1970 school year without exceeding the ten mill limit. Furthermore, the unreality of the defendant's contention is pointed up by the wide disparities which the Millage Rollback Act creates. For example Charlotte County by using the ten mill limit may raise, by its own taxes, $725 per student, while Bradford County, also using the ten mill limit, can raise only $52 per student. What apparently is arcane to the defendants is lucid to us—that the Act prevents the poor counties from providing from their own taxes the same support for public education which the wealthy counties are able to provide.

The argument that the relief sought cannot remedy the evil alleged gives us little pause. First it does not meet the constitutional issue under the Equal Protection Clause. Second, the proven facts simply contradict the possibility posed by the defendants that School Boards will not choose to levy taxes in excess of ten mills.

The defendants finally urge that the counties are not prohibited from levying ad valorem taxes in excess of ten mills because they may choose to do so and forego their MFP funds. This fact, in defendants' view, avoids the constitutional issue. We disagree. The State may not grant a benefit subject to a condition which violates the Equal Protection Clause. See Sherbert v. Verner, 1963, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965; Keyishian v. Board of Regents of New York, 1967, 385 U.S. 589, 605-606, 87 S.Ct. 675, 17 L.Ed. 2d 629.

The disposition of the defendants' contentions does not dispose of the case. We cannot circumnavigate the issue squarely presented by the plaintiffs, — i. e., does the Act, which imposes a ten mill limit on the authority of the counties to tax themselves without losing MFP funds, violate the Equal Protection Clause because the limitation is fixed by reference to a standard which relates solely to the amount of property in a county and not to the educational needs of the county? The determination of this question depends first upon whether there is any rational basis for the distinction drawn. If there is a rational basis for the distinction, it must then be determined whether the right which is infringed is "a basic, fundamental right," and, if so, whether the distinction which the legislature has drawn serves a "compelling state interest." McDonald v. Board of Election, 1969, 394 U.S. 802, 806-807, 89 S.Ct. 1404, 22 L.Ed.2d 739.

We start with the proposition that the equal protection clause requires "the uniform treatment of persons standing in the same relation to the governmental...

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