Schools are gearing up for a legal battle against state legislators — a battle that lawmakers say Kansans can't afford. A coalition of 57 districts met last week to discuss suing the state because of cuts to education funding that they said could leave schools short on money for years to come.
The Schools for Fair Funding coalition, which has recruited 44 members since July, said it wants to encourage even more districts to join before they meet in December, when it could decide to take legal action.
"They see (litigation) as the lesser of two evils," said John Robb, who has served as the lead attorney for Schools for Fair Funding since 2006. "It's better than the other options. They could take budget cuts, harming kids, or stand up for their rights in court."
More than half of the state's budget goes to public schools, which have weathered two rounds of budget cuts since January.
Districts say they are owed another $100 million this school year because of an increase in enrollment and an increase in low-income students. But the state may withhold that money because of the budget shortfall.
A decision by the governor is expected in the next 10 days as the state tries to balance the budget with dismal tax revenue, Robb said.
A lawsuit — or threat of one — won't provide short-term relief to schools during a recession, legislators said.
"It's just not the time when people are hurting to take our tax dollars and file a lawsuit in the court just because they don't get their way in the Legislature, because we are doing our best," said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who sits on the Senate Education Committee.
A lawsuit proved successful for Schools For Fair Funding the first time around, though.
As a result of the lawsuit, the state has put $600 million more into kindergarten through 12th-grade education since 2005.
With the economic downturn, that was cut by $135 million in the current budget, Wagle said.
But school leaders said it's not about the economy. It's about holding the state to a long-term commitment to funding schools.
K-12 education should be the state's first priority, they say, even if it means raising taxes.
Juggling budget cuts
Lawmakers have to juggle several details when considering the budget, including the potential for another lawsuit and making sure the state does not drop below 2006 funding levels and lose federal recovery act dollars, said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
But at the end of the session in May, the Legislature had to pass a balanced budget. Cuts by the Legislature and later the governor resulted in a $135 million cut to education this year.
"I am sorry that schools districts are thinking about suing the state again, because certainly we did not cause the recession, and we did not want to cut education," Schodorf said.
She said she was aware of the cuts schools had already made, including 3,000 jobs lost statewide.
Those reductions are coming as people in the private sector also are losing their jobs and their health insurance and looking at an uncertain future, she said. In that context the answer isn't increasing taxes.
"We have to consider that it would be very difficult on taxpayers who are barely making it to shoulder extra taxes," Schodorf said.
The state should have made room in the budget to fund education before times got rough, and it should make sure schools aren't as susceptible to cuts, school leaders said. The state constitution makes it the state's job to fund education, said Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding.
"The Legislature did not fund what they said it would do," Robb said. "It's not caused solely by the economy."
When legislators passed a three-year agreement to increase school funding in 2006, Robb said, they knew they wouldn't be able to pay everything the state owed schools in 2009.
Instead of making provisions for that payment, the Legislature has cut taxes by about $180 million since 2005, Robb said.
Schodorf said both the tax breaks and additional education money were good ideas when the state budget was flush.
"There are going to be a couple of lean years... eventually it will come back and education funding will be better," she said.
Focus: educating kids
Districts said they aren't sure how to keep cutting the budget without laying off teachers because salaries make up the vast majority of a school district's budget.
Wichita superintendent John Allison said the promise of more money in the 2005 agreement was "basically ignored," along with the state constitution that requires state government to establish — and fund — public schools.
"This is a statewide economic issue," he said. "We're looking long-term at attracting and retaining business — when folks look at where they want to live."
Education of future workers shouldn't suffer because a recession lowers tax revenue, Allison said.
"It's key to our viability... long-term," he said. "It has not always been the priority."
Recommendations released last week by a legislative commission charged with studying school funding called education "the single most important function provided by the state government."
Members of the 2010 Commission, including former lawmakers and educators, specifically recommended the state increase property taxes to raise more revenue to fund education. The draft of recommendations stated that lower taxes won't help the economy in the long run if education suffers.
More education money has a direct correlation to higher test scores, especially for low-income students, school leaders said. A 1 percent increase in district performance is associated with a 0.83 percent increase in spending, according to a 2006 legislative post-audit report.
Schodorf doesn't dispute that.
"That's not the question. It's getting through a tough time and picking up the pieces and going forward," Schodorf said.
Backlash to lawsuit?
Because of prior budget cuts, and with school boards anticipating more, many Kansas Association of School Board members have been asking whether they should join a future lawsuit over school funding.
For now the association has left the decision up to local districts, said KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman.
He warned that a lawsuit filed this year is not guaranteed to provide immediate relief to school budget woes. The 2005 school districts' victory started with a 1999 lawsuit.
But districts also are worried that the cuts won't affect only the short-term budgets, Tallman said.
Whichever cuts are made in 2010 and 2011 will be a permanent part of the state budget in the future because they will impact per-student state aid, he said.
"It's one thing to have sort of a temporary tightening of your belt, but what we are talking about is sort of a permanent cut locking itself in," he said.
Tallman said the association has cautioned its members that a lawsuit could cause a backlash from some lawmakers.
"There were a number of legislators who were extremely upset about both the (previous) lawsuit and how the court ruled," he said.
Lawsuits across U.S.
School districts in Kansas aren't the only ones considering lawsuits over school funding.
Nationwide, there has been a lull the past few months as schools and their employees waited to see how budget cuts would come down, said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Access Quality Education Network.
His nonprofit organization tracks school-funding lawsuits, and Rebell said he has led suits against New York state on behalf of students.
Forty-five states have been sued over school funding, and the states lost about two-thirds of the recent cases, he said.
In response to losing a lawsuit, legislatures usually construct new ways to calculate school funding formulas or offer multiyear agreements to pay a certain amount of money, as Kansas did, Rebell said. A few states raised taxes.
Plaintiffs, which can be districts, teacher unions, parents or advocacy groups, usually focus on wording in almost all of the states' constitutions that make the state responsible for providing public education to its residents, Rebell said.
The U.S. Constitution contains no language guaranteeing the funding of public education.
Kansas lawmakers spoke of changing the state constitution after losing the lawsuit in 2005, but Rebell said no state has changed its constitution to make states less responsible for funding education.
"First of all, to get any constitutional amendment passed is an undertaking," he said, referring to a two-thirds majority approval by legislators and then a popular vote. "Very few politicians want to stand on the platform of weakening children's rights."
Dealing with cuts now
While considering a years-long fight, schools are trying to figure out how to absorb a loss of money this school year.
The Goddard and Maize school districts are reassembling administrative and resident committees that helped trim their budgets this summer.
"This next round of cuts is not going to be as painless," said Annette Singletary, spokeswoman for Goddard schools. "We will see how it affects people. Once you've cut all the peripheral, it's very hard to look at things that don't affect people."
The Wichita district cut almost $16 million from its $620 million budget, just short of eliminating teaching positions. Dozens of teachers were next on the proposed cut list.
The state's largest district could have to cut $10 million more if the state doesn't pay for increased costs due to rising enrollment.
The district probably won't have to make drastic cuts this year because it has left positions unfilled and could dip into its roughly $13 million reserve fund, Allison said.
Reach Lori Yount at 316-268-6269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.