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Judge does not dismiss lawsuit challenging school district tax cap

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at 11:11 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, at 3:18 p.m.

A federal court judge has opted not to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the state’s cap on how much money residents in a school district can raise through taxes.

U.S. District Court Judge John W. Lungstrum ruled this week that the plaintiffs, who are all parents in the Shawnee Mission school district, “are not being prevented from using their money to fund their children’s education, as they can send their children to private schools or donate their money to the local school district.”

He added that the plaintiffs did not prove “a fundamental right to spend others’ money on their children’s education.”

However, Lungstrum opted not to rule on the constitutionality of their overall claim and denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Now the focus of the lawsuit going forward will be whether the local option budget cap – which limits the amount of money school districts can raise beyond what the state provides – is a fair and legitimate way to maintain equity in education funding throughout the state.

“We think the evidence will show the answer to be ‘no,’ and that we will prevail,” said Tristan Duncan, an attorney who represents the Shawnee Mission parents.

“We will show that the cap is intended to insure that our school district remains unequally funded and there is nothing meaningful we can do to overcome the intentional underfunding,” Duncan said in an e-mailed statement. “That is not the American Way, which is founded on liberty, equality and local initiative to provide for our children.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2010, seeks to toss out local property tax caps that are part of the Kansas school finance formula.

The local option tax was capped so wealthy districts wouldn’t have an unfair advantage over poorer ones. But the Shawnee Mission district – one of the wealthiest in Kansas – has reached the maximum amount allowed.

Parents have held country club fundraisers to help pay for some programs, such as Spanish in elementary schools, but they claim state funding cuts and limits on what private money can be used for have increased class sizes and forced the closure of schools.

Alan Rupe, an attorney representing school districts in a separate funding lawsuit against the state, said the property tax cap is a crucial part of the state’s school finance formula.

“That case is absolutely about equity – the ability of the state of Kansas to make sure that regardless of what your zip code is, you have the same educational opportunity anywhere in the state,” Rupe said.

The plaintiffs “want to blow the lid off the LOB so that in Johnson County, where the average income is in excess of six figures, they can spend as much money on their own kids locally as they want. But that creates all kinds of problems.”

Rupe called Tuesday’s ruling “favorable.” The judge said the state needs to show a “rational basis” for the local tax cap for the lawsuit to be dismissed, Rupe said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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