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School districts to go back to court over funding cuts

SALINA — Dozens of Kansas school districts, including Wichita, voted to take the state to court over education funding, drawing outrage from local lawmakers who face tough decisions on how to spend the state's limited revenue.

"I nearly ran off the road," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, when she heard of the decision. "The session is going to be extremely difficult. This will just add to the confusion and difficulty."

Representatives from about 60 school districts unanimously voted Friday to ask the state Supreme Court to reopen a lawsuit dismissed in 2005. The court had ruled that the level of state aid to public schools was inadequate and, therefore, violated the state's constitution, which requires the Legislature to make "suitable provision" for school finance.

The court dismissed the case after legislators agreed to dramatically increase school funding over three years.

The new action would ask the court to decide whether the funding plan legislators created in response to the 2005 court opinion — and state budget cuts that began during the third year of the plan — are constitutional, said John Robb, the lead attorney for the Schools for Fair Funding group.

"This is the most effective and quickest way to get relief," he said.

Although unusual, reopening the lawsuit would cut about six months off the time leading to a trial, Robb said. A motion to reopen the lawsuit probably will be filed in the next month, he said.

If the Supreme Court refuses to open the case, the school districts would consider filing a new lawsuit.

The last four times educators have asked legislators to change how schools are funded, it took court intervention for lawmakers to act, Robb said.

Any lawsuit won't win favor with legislators, who hold the purse strings, as they try to cut more than $358.7 million out of the budget, Schodorf said.

She predicted some legislators would be livid.

"Some legislators might not even see their school representatives," said Schodorf, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. She said she would continue to meet with school representatives.

Using taxpayer money to sue the state is a misuse of the money that public schools receive, said Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita. He said he is disappointed in the districts, but their litigation shouldn't significantly affect this legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

"Our decisions will be based on the money available, not the threat of a lawsuit," said McLeland, chairman of the House Education Budget Committee.

Three Wichita school board members, along with superintendent John Allison, attended Friday's meeting in Salina. They said they support the resolution to reopen the lawsuit.

"This is the way to begin," said board president Barbara Fuller. "The suit already exists and is very specific in nature. It is the right thing to do."

Wichita schools have lost about $35 million in per-student state aid out of their $621 million budget so far. Next year, the district might face a $20 million shortfall.

Legal action will cost school districts more, Robb said, and it will take a few weeks to get official confirmation of which districts want to be part of the suit.

The Wichita school board has approved money only for membership in Schools for Fair Funding, not to pay additional fees for litigation, Fuller said.

From 2006 to July, about 13 districts belonged to the group. As of Friday morning, 74 districts had agreed to pay its $2-per-student membership dues.

Other Wichita-area school districts that are members include Haysville, Goddard and Valley Center.

School leaders said the recession isn't the only reason the state has reduced how much money it doles out per student, but more than $1 billion in tax reductions passed since 1995 exacerbate the shortfalls in tax revenue.

Schodorf said she and other lawmakers are willing to consider removing some sales tax exemptions to raise revenue. Eliminating some tax breaks could provide some relief to K-12 education, which makes up more than half of the state's $6 billion budget.

School leaders and lawmakers agree additional education dollars produced by the last lawsuit resulted in higher student performance.

But all state-funded programs are hurting, Schodorf said.

"Five years ago, it wasn't a lack of revenue" that led to the lawsuit, Schodorf said. "This year, the entire United States, we're all in a huge recession."

While federal stimulus money has softened the blow of state aid cuts, school leaders pointed out that the federal dollars run out in two years, if not sooner.

As part of the most recent round of cuts in November, Gov. Mark Parkinson moved $86 million in stimulus money for education that was reserved for next school year into this year.

"We need help from everybody so that we can keep providing (government) services," Schodorf said. "But wasting money suing the state... is not a help."

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