Kansas school finance lawsuit talks unsuccessful

03/06/2014 2:04 PM

08/08/2014 10:16 AM

TOPEKA — Two days of talks aimed at settling a lawsuit that challenges Kansas’ school finance system were unsuccessful, attorneys for both sides said in a status report filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court.

Attorneys representing plaintiff school districts and parents met with those representing the state for court-ordered mediation Monday and Tuesday.

“The mediation was not successful,” said John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the plaintiffs. He declined to comment further.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment beyond what was stated in the status report, citing confidentiality agreements related to mediation talks.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court ruled in January that the state’s system for funding public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling suggested the state was shortchanging public schools by at least $440 million.

The lawsuit was filed against the state in November 2010 by parents and guardians of 32 students and the school districts of Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., after the state backed off from previous education funding promises.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, both Republicans, asked the court to approve mediation in hopes of settling the case.

The case is set for an Oct. 8 hearing, and a ruling is expected around the beginning of next year.

The justices ordered mediation to run concurrently with preparation for the October hearing date, meaning talks could last until the attorneys go before the state Supreme Court, or even until a ruling is issued.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he’s not surprised the talks failed because the state and the parties suing it were far apart.

“The next step is probably for the court to hear the case and make its ruling,” Davis said in an interview.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said legislators will watch the case closely, though they’re not a party to it.

“Our focus is on creating an education environment in Kansas that is child-centric, that will instill a love of learning and prepare students to succeed right after graduation,” he said in a statement.

The Kansas Constitution gives the Legislature the only authority to appropriate money. That means the 125-member House and 40 senators would have to authorize the state to pay an agreed-upon amount before adjourning in May. Any agreement after that point would require a legislative special session.

That’s what happened in 2005, when legislators met for two weeks to develop a one-year, $148.2 million school funding package, which the court viewed as an “interim step” toward satisfying student needs. Legislators followed it with a more comprehensive, three-year plan.

Combined, the two packages increased school spending by nearly $1 billion.

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