Kansas lawmakers are looking at how they can come up with $38 million to avoid a court-ordered shutdown of schools, Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday as he set June 23 as the date for a special legislative session.
Lawmakers face a June 30 deadline to fix unconstitutional inequities in school funding. If they do not act by then, the Kansas Supreme Court could put a hold on $4 billion in state education funding in July, triggering school closures.
Brownback said lawmakers are considering a variety of plans to come up with $38 million to close the gaps between rich and poor districts, a solution identified by the court.
“They’re basically saying $38 million more and you’re set,” Brownback said, referring to the amount it would cost to restore the state’s old formula for equitable funding. Lawmakers discarded that formula when they adopted a block grant form of funding last year.
Brownback signed the proclamation for a special legislative session – the 23rd in the state’s history – on Wednesday afternoon. He noted he does not have the power to tell lawmakers what to do – he can only call them back for a special session.
Brownback repeatedly criticized the court during his news conference Wednesday.
“What I find so irritable about this is that the remedy that the court is putting in place, which is to shut the schools down over a $38 million dispute … just seems so completely out of bounds,” Brownback said.
The standoff between the Legislature and the court has gained national attention and cast doubt on whether schools will be able to continue offering their summer programs next month or open on time for the next school year.
Several Republican lawmakers called for the Legislature to defy the court’s order last week.
I think what people are hearing is we don’t want schools closed, and they’re probably irritated at everybody about that prospect.
Gov. Sam Brownback
“I think it takes people being at home and hearing from their friends and neighbors and their constituencies to feel what the public is interested in,” Brownback said when asked to gauge the level of support from lawmakers for passing a solution that meets court approval. “And I think what people are hearing is we don’t want schools closed, and they’re probably irritated at everybody about that prospect.”
‘You got to decide’
Brownback predicted the Legislature would coalesce around a solution as the June 30 deadline approaches.
“It’s not until you get up right against the wall that people say, ‘Look, you got to decide – the choice is A or B.’ That is when things typically happen. And it’s frustrating to the public, because they’re looking at it and they’re going ‘why don’t you get your job done earlier?’ ” Brownback said. “Well, it’s because you’re trying to get a majority of two bodies, all full of constitutional officers, saying, ‘Yeah, I would do this,’ and you almost have to get up against a deadline to get enough agreement.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, issued a joint news release promising to work quickly and ensure that schools remain open.
“All efforts will be made to get in, get our business done and get out,” Merrick said in the release.
Mark Desetti, legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association, said that if lawmakers “search their souls, they know the answer.”
“We simply need to restore what we had before,” Desetti said. “The problem for the Legislature is that by most accounts, that will cost them some money.”
The state faces a budget gap of about $50 million that needs to be closed before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Brownback’s office has said that it will tap special revenue funds to do that. His budget director would not provide any details on Wednesday.
Brownback’s office floated the idea last month that an adverse court ruling could lead to Medicaid cuts, but Brownback said Wednesday that he hoped the state could avoid that.
May shift funds
Brownback hinted that lawmakers may look to shift funds from elsewhere in the education budget to help cover the cost of equalizing local option budgets, money drawn from local property taxes.
“There are a number of places being looked at, including within the education formula,” he said.
John Robb, an attorney for the Wichita school district, said the court may not accept a plan that takes the $38 million from elsewhere in the education budget. However, he saw the governor’s use of that dollar figure as a positive sign that lawmakers would work toward a true fix.
“Until we see the details, we don’t have much to react to, but I think it’s certainly good news that they’re at least going to think about appropriating the $38 million, fixing it and going home,” he said.
Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget committee chairman, avoided using an exact number when asked about Brownback’s comments.
“There’s multiple ways to satisfy the court. We have over $4 billion to figure out the best way to equalize to ensure that our schools remain open,” he said.
Brownback said increasing taxes would not be an option.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, predicted the governor would tap the $17 million K-12 extraordinary needs fund to pay for part of the cost of complying with the order.
He said Brownback would probably take money from the pension system, higher education and early childhood funding to cover the rest of the cost “and then blame the court for cutting all of these other things.”
“He’ll tap those kinds of things to force us to vote for policies we don’t like to solve the problem,” Trimmer said. “But we’re going to have to solve the problem.”
One thing that may complicate efforts to address the school finance ruling is the Johnson County delegation’s resistance to restoring the old equalization formula, which would cut state aid for Johnson County districts and redirect money to other areas of the state, including Wichita.
Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, said he would vote only for a bill that “doesn’t steal money from the Johnson County student base.”
The courts have done their best to keep us in disarray. And I fully expect that whatever we pass, the courts will find a problem with it that they think is worthy of closing the schools once again.
Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood
Brownback said that including a provision to hold wealthier school districts harmless would push the total cost of a bill to $50 million and might run afoul of the court.
“The courts have done their best to keep us in disarray,” Melcher said. “And I fully expect that whatever we pass, the courts will find a problem with it that they think is worthy of closing the schools once again. I don’t think the courts have any intention of allowing us to solve this problem.”
Some lawmakers have called for a constitutional amendment that would explicitly bar the court from closing schools in the future. That would require approval from two-thirds of each chamber and approval of the state’s voters.
“I think it would pass if we get it before the body,” Melcher said. “You’d have to be an idiot to vote against something like that.”