Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators scrambled Tuesday to figure out how, when or even whether to deal with a state Supreme Court order to fix inequities in school funding or face a June 30 shutdown of the state’s school system.
And although it appears likely no decisions will be made Wednesday when the Legislature returns to Topeka, House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said legislative leaders would be meeting to try to decide how to proceed.
Obviously, everybody wants to keep our schools open.
Rep. Jene Vickrey, House majority leader
“Obviously, everybody wants to keep our schools open,” Vickrey said.
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The situation essentially boils down to three basic options for the governor and Legislature:
▪ Deal with the issue this week at the annual “sine die” session. Sine die is generally a one-day session marking the ceremonial end of the legislative year. It probably would have to be extended by several days to take on the issue of school finance.
▪ Let sine die proceed as planned and later call a special session to deal with school finance as a stand-alone issue.
▪ Defy the court, do nothing, let the schools close and leave it to voters to decide whether the legislators or the justices are at fault.
A quick decision appears unlikely.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the school finance ruling won’t be on the agenda at Wednesday’s session.
Lawmakers are scheduled to consider other business, including a resolution on which bathrooms transgender students should use and a possible attempt to override the governor’s veto of a bill to make it easier for a former Pizza Hut magnate to appeal a disputed $42 million tax bill in district court.
Wagle said the state’s attorneys have not had enough time to analyze the school finance decision, and she sent the AP an e-mailed statement saying that she, Brownback and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, have agreed that the sine die session will end in one day “as originally planned.”
Because of the Memorial Day holiday, Tuesday was the first business day since the school finance ruling was issued at about 5 p.m. on Friday.
That drew a blistering response from Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who said school finance is the state’s most important public service and is too important to wait.
It would be unconscionable to talk about anything else but keeping our public schools open and constitutionally funded.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita
“The governor and the Legislature should start work tomorrow on fixing this problem and keeping our schools open – period,” he said. “It would be unconscionable to talk about anything else but keeping our public schools open and constitutionally funded.”
Let schools close
Over the weekend, Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, called for the Legislature to just go ahead and let the court close schools.
If that did happen, “I think each school district will have to make a decision if they’re going to obey the court,” he said.
He said closing the schools could change the court dramatically in the November election.
You know, there’s five justices up for retention this fall and there’s four in particular that have got a very good chance of not being retained.
Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita
“You know, there’s five justices up for retention this fall and there’s four in particular that have got a very good chance of not being retained,” Suellentrop said. “You’ve just got to wonder, if we said no, would they do that ... to shut down schools over less than 1 percent (funding differential) and run a big, big, much bigger chance of not being retained?”
Ward said he thinks the court would win that showdown.
“The vast majority of Kansans understand the court’s job is to rule on the constitutionality of laws,” he said. “And the idea that somehow the governor and the Republicans are above the law, that somehow they don’t have to follow court decisions is absolutely ridiculous.”
The court ruling came in response to a challenge by four school districts, including Wichita, that said the Legislature hasn’t met its constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for public education.
The courts have divided the school funding question into two elements: adequacy, which deals with how much money the schools get overall, and equity, the question of whether the funding is fairly distributed.
Friday’s ruling addressed only equity. The court is still considering adequacy.
The suit specifically challenges Brownback’s block grant school funding plan, which essentially froze districts at the 2013-14 spending level to give the Legislature two years to develop a new formula for funding schools.
In an earlier ruling, the court found that the block grant program shortchanged poor districts in two areas: capital funding to build facilities and the local option budget, which allows voters to tax themselves to provide more funding for their own schools.
The main issue is that property-rich districts can easily raise large amounts of money with relatively small increases in the tax rate, while poor districts have to raise tax rates by much more to generate significant money for schools.
The court ruled Friday that a bill passed earlier this year to address inequity in funding not only didn’t fix the problem, it may have even made it worse through a “hold-harmless” clause that guaranteed no district would lose funding in the equalization process.
Leave it to board
Suellentrop said the court’s rulings have given lawmakers “an ever-changing target,” and he’d consider letting the state Board of Education make the decisions on how to equitably divide funding among the state’s school districts.
“Let them take the shot,” he said. “Let them make the distribution. We can determine adequacy and perhaps they can determine equity.”
Vickrey said the court ruling is complicated and lawmakers won’t know their options and be able to form priorities until they can meet with their lawyers and financial analysts.
“It would make sense for us to get our numbers together in caucus and find out what those are,” he said. “At this point, it’s a couple of steps, at least a couple, before we know what happens next.”
Brownback met with legislative leaders throughout the day Tuesday to try to work out a solution to the quandary, said his spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley.
“We’re having discussions about the Supreme Court ruling, and the governor will be talking with legislative leadership about it,” she said. “Clearly, we need to give the Legislature an opportunity to come back and to determine what it wants to do, but the governor’s office is engaging in discussions with legislative leadership.”