School board votes to sue state

Wichita school board members voted unanimously Monday to take legal action against the state for cutting education funding.

The board voted in November to pay $89,000 to become a full member of Schools for Fair Funding, a coalition of Kansas districts that is fighting the spending cuts. By agreeing Monday to help pay for a lawsuit, the board authorized spending $134,000 more —roughly $223,000 total — this year.

"To me, we're not going to see any more (state) money," board member Lynn Rogers said. "I don't think it necessarily alienates (legislators) any more. Our job is to support our kids."

The money would come from the part of the district's operations budget that is funded by local tax dollars.

Seven speakers, including Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, called the district's action a "tax-funded lawsuit."

Peterjohn, who said he was attending as a parent and taxpayer, said the school district's total budget had grown 8 percent since the last school year to reach roughly $620 million.

"Let's not use part of the spending growth on a lawsuit," he said.

Rogers said the budget growth was in large part because of federal stimulus dollars and other money that the district can't use for day-to-day classroom costs.

In response to Peterjohn's claim that using taxpayer money to sue another government agency wasn't appropriate, Rogers pointed out that Sedgwick County, which Peterjohn represents, is using tax money to sue city governments over payment for housing inmates in the county jail.

"That was different," said Peterjohn, who added he wasn't on the commission in November 2008, when it originally voted to sue. "It was sue or be sued."

Parent and local businessman John Lay said he supported fighting to adequately fund schools, but he wasn't sure using taxpayer money to pay for a lawsuit was the answer.

"I question whether political costs of doing so are too high," he said.

As revenue fell far below projections last year, the state cut spending by about $1 billion. It still faces a potential $358.7 million shortfall for the 2011 budget year, which begins July 1.

Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, has said he opposes further cuts in education and other state services, and has called for the Republican-controlled Legislature to increase cigarette taxes and end some tax breaks.

Legislators have shown great reluctance in the past year to consider any tax increases.

Wichita, the state's largest district, lost $34 million in state funding this school year. The district has frozen hiring and eliminated out-of-state travel for employees.

Districts elsewhere in Kansas have reduced teachers' pay or shortened the school year to cope with the reduced state funding.

Representatives from almost 70 Kansas school districts voted last month to sue the state. Each district's school board must vote to help pay for the legal action.

The coalition will ask the Kansas Supreme Court to reopen a lawsuit it decided in 2005, when it ordered the Legislature to substantially increase education funding.

Before last year's cuts, the state' K-12 schools had received an additional $600 million since 2006 as a result.

If the Supreme Court won't reopen the case, the coalition would file a new lawsuit.

The state is required to fund schools adequately under the Kansas Constitution.