The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state Legislature has successfully fixed inequities in school funding, putting to rest fears of a statewide school shutdown next month.
“Big, big relief all the way around,” Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, said shortly after hearing the news.
The court’s ruling comes a day after Gov. Sam Brownback signed the legislation and two days before the deadline the court had set for lawmakers. Lawmakers passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support during a two-day special session last week.
The Governor is pleased that Kansas schools will remain open. ... He appreciates the hard work and focus of the legislature during the special session.
Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman
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“The Governor is pleased that Kansas schools will remain open,” Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “He appreciates the hard work and focus of the legislature during the special session.”
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the ruling “puts to rest what’s been 20 or 30 years of litigation regarding equity.”
It also paves the way for a bigger fight over whether school funding is adequate, something that could be much more costly for the state to resolve.
The court noted in the ruling that it would schedule oral arguments over adequacy soon.
Plaintiffs ‘extremely pleased’
Wichita is one of four districts that have been locked in a court battle with the state over school funding since 2010.
The districts’ attorney, Alan Rupe, said in an e-mail that the plaintiff districts “are extremely pleased that schools will be opening in the fall and that funding will be distributed in a manner that comports with the Kansas Constitution’s equity requirement.”
“Nonetheless, plaintiffs are also aware that the matter is not resolved and the question of whether funding levels are adequate remains,” he said.
Lawmakers cobbled together $38 million from a variety of funding sources to fix equity after the court rejected a previous proposal in May. The bill increases state funding for 169 school districts, including every district in Sedgwick County, but does not increase the state’s overall budget.
The Wichita school district will gain $10.3 million in additional state aid.
More than half of that money will go to property tax relief for Wichita residents, while the rest can be used for capital improvements at Wichita schools.
“This is a win for taxpayers, students and the state,” Carmichael said. “I’m very pleased that the Legislature was able to do the right thing and satisfy the constitutional requirements.”
Rogers said the district has not yet made any decisions on what to do with the money.
Result of compromise
The bill is the product of compromise between school officials from around the state and lawmakers across political factions.
“The bill is the result of the continual work from many different people, which is why it gained such broad support,” Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget committee chairman, said in a statement. “From the beginning, there was collaboration between superintendents, education commissioner Randy Watson, Senate budget chair Ty Masterson, and many other legislators who had integral roles.”
Watson, the education commissioner, convened talks between some of the state’s largest school districts and legislative leaders ahead of the session.
Conversations between lawmakers and school officials continued through the week, resulting in the final compromise bill, said Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyist for the Wichita school district.
“There were many, many conversations going on that were just below the surface,” she said. “There were many conversations going on among the different groups: the (GOP) leadership group, the moderates, the Democrats. Everyone had a role to play in this. You can’t point to one single path to getting it finalized. There were a lot of different people playing different roles.”
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, called the ruling “fabulous news for the school kids of Kansas” and said it shows what lawmakers are capable of when they’re willing to work across the aisle.
“I’m thrilled to death. I think that this is a model going forward, and I look forward to good things next year,” said Wolfe Moore.
Regardless of how the court rules on adequacy, lawmakers will have to craft a new school finance formula during the next legislative session before two-year block grants expire.
Funding sources for school finance fix
$2.8 million cut to virtual school aid
$7.3 million sweep from the K-12 extraordinary needs fund
$4.1 million sweep from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
$10.5 million from state’s tobacco settlement
$13 million from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority*
*If the KBA sale comes up short, an addition $8 million will come from the extraordinary needs fund and another $5 million will come from KDOT’s motor vehicle fee fund.
Total gain for Wichita-area districts
Wichita: $10.3 million
Derby: $1.6 million
Valley Center: $364,486
*Andover loses in some categories of aid but gains overall.
Source: The Kansas Legislative Research Department