School coalition moves ahead with lawsuit

The Wichita school district's decision to sue the state over budget cuts means a coalition of Kansas schools will proceed with legal action, the group's lead attorney said Tuesday.

A motion could be filed within the next 10 days to re-open a previous school funding case against the state that forced legislators to substantially increase education dollars since 2006, Newton attorney John Robb said.

He said the coalition, Schools for Fair Funding, now has 53 member districts — representing 136,683 students — that have agreed to pay for the suit.

The group agreed in December to initiate legal action if school districts representing at least 100,000 students joined.

Wichita, the state's largest school district, provided half of that threshold by joining Monday night.

The district has lost $34 million in state funding this school year, prompting administrators to freeze hiring and eliminate out-of-state travel for employees.

The Wichita school board unanimously voted to pay up to $5 per student this school year to take part in the suit.

But with more districts joining than Robb originally estimated, cost per student should be less than $3.25.

Wichita board members already voted to spend $2 per student — or about $89,000 total — to become a full member of Schools for Funding.

With Robb's adjusted cost estimate, the Wichita district would pay roughly $55,600 more to join the suit, for a total of about $144,600 paid to the group this school year.

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

Once Schools for Fair Funding files the motion to reopen the K-12 education funding case, Robb said he isn't sure how long the Kansas Supreme Court will take to decide whether to grant a new trial to the schools.

Trying to reopen a school funding at the state Supreme Court level is rare, Robb said. If the Supreme Court refuses to reopen the Montoy case, he said the schools would file a new lawsuit.

"If they re-open Montoy, it's going to be a lot quicker and cheaper," Robb said.

And as legislators prepare to head back to Topeka next week, they said schools can't expect relief any time soon.

"Where the economy is, I don't know where they think the money is going to come from," said Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, who is chairman of the House Education Budget Committee.

Education leaders statewide have suggested the state build back some revenue by stopping tax breaks, especially to businesses.

McLeland said tinkering with tax cuts would be a "big mistake" in Kansas' effort to attract businesses and recover economically.

A lawsuit probably won't change lawmakers' stances on education funding, he said.

"The lawsuit is immaterial," McLeland said. "We need to get the session completed with a balanced budget."