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Act by July 1 on school funding or court could, Kansas AG tells legislators

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Monday, March 10, 2014, at 1:14 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 11, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.

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Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt made it emphatically clear to Republican lawmakers Monday that they must act to fix inequities in school funding before July 1 – or a district court could take action for them.

The state Supreme Court’s decision in a school-funding lawsuit Friday requires the Legislature to equalize local option budget and capital outlay funds for school districts, Schmidt said. The court ruled these funding sources, which draw from local property tax dollars, create unconstitutional disparities between districts.

The Legislature can either allocate more money or rewrite laws to address disparities between wealthier and poorer districts.

It is not required to provide a specific dollar amount to solve inequalities in school funding, Schmidt said, but added that the ruling is not an invitation to do nothing.

If lawmakers don’t act, the court could. In the case of capital outlay funds, the court could order an automatic transfer of funds to poorer districts, he explained in briefings to the House and Senate Republican caucuses.

In the case of the local option budget, the court could potentially halt any district from using the money, he said. It would be up to the court to decide the remedy if the Legislature does not meet its deadline.

The Legislature has two clear options, Schmidt said. The first would be to provide equal funding in these two areas outright and prevent further other court action on equity.

Republicans have refrained from putting a price tag on that option, but experts, including Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis and the non-partisan Kansas Legislative Research Department, have calculated that equalization would cost $129 million.

Democrats and school advocates have called for the Legislature to approve that spending.

The other option would be to come up with another solution to address inequity, which would have to be reviewed by the court.

After the House caucus briefing, Schmidt agreed that money would have to be shifted in order to address inequity if the Legislature doesn’t add new money.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said he would instruct the House Appropriations Committee to drop all other business and focus on coming up with a solution, ideally before the Legislature’s first adjournment on April 4.

“I don’t know if new funds need to be added, or if there’s funds already in the system that can be used,” he said.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, who has spent time working on school finance issues in the past, predicted that the Legislature probably would do both. “I’m sure it will be some combination. That’s just politics,” he said. “I think you’re looking at everything. You have to look at everything right now.”

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that will tackle the issue on the Senate side, said there are a lot of ways money can be shifted.

“The court’s decision basically says take it from the wealthy and give it to the less wealthy to equalize this thing out,” Masterson said.

But he also pointed to at-risk funding as another potential source. He said past audits have found some at-risk funding to be improperly allocated.

“I have some percentage of at-risk money, which is being abused, that could potentially shift over to equalization… If you’re looking at this is the pot of education, there’s all these individual silos. You really need to evaluate the whole thing,” Masterson.

President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the Senate would analyze the impact to each district in the state before deciding how to proceed.

House Republicans did not offer specific plans. But Merrick did ask his members to set aside their alliance to their own school districts and focus on coming up with a solution that works for the state as a whole.

Merrick also instructed his members to not use specific monetary figures when discussing the issue publicly.

“I want to caution everybody about going out of this room and start talking about a number. Because as soon as you start talking about a number, that’s going to be the number that sticks,” Merrick said. “And we have no idea what that number is right now.”

Democrats and school advocates already have a number: $129 million.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and Dennis gave a presentation about the court decision at the Kansas Democratic Party’s convention in Topeka on Saturday.

Hensley said the Legislature should solve the problem outright and avoid options that require further court action.

“To me, and this is my editorial comment, the best and most appropriate action is to fully fund it at $129 million,” Hensley told a crowd of about 100 people. “You can applaud that.”

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said at the Senate caucus meeting that additional funds would fall “somewhere between zero and $130 million.”

In a statement released Monday, the Kansas Association of School Boards urged the governor and the Legislature to fully fund equalization “to correct the unconstitutional wealth-based disparities in these programs as ordered by the court.”

Some lawmakers focused less on an amount and more on the ruling itself. Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said he still objected to the court ruling on such matters.

“The constitution tells us to fund a lot of things. Are you now able to sue the Legislature if you don’t get enough funds?” Schwab asked Schmidt at the meeting. “This gets to be a very dark hole that the court is throwing us into.”

Schmidt told Schwab that the state had lost that argument and told him not to lose any sleep over it. He called the ruling respectful of the separation of powers and added that it allows lawmakers to show evidence for the rationale behind their funding decisions.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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