School funding group hasn't decided to sue

TOPEKA — While Kansas school districts continue to join a group that advocates for more funding for public education, the group has not decided whether to file a second funding lawsuit against the Legislature.

Attorney John Robb said Thursday that Schools for Fair Funding now includes 67 of the state's 293 school districts, representing 165,586 students.

A lawsuit the coalition of school districts filed in 1999 resulted in a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that forced the Legislature to increase state spending on education by nearly $1 billion over three years.

But the state has had five rounds of cuts and other adjustments this year to keep its budget balanced, with public schools losing millions of dollars and seeing base state aid per student drop. The Kansas Department of Education estimates the total reductions in general state aid to districts at $241 million.

"Contrary to popular belief, they have not voted to sue the state," said Robb, who is based in Newton. "They have talked about it. They are considering options. They want more districts involved in the process, so they have given more time. The whole thing is run by the school districts, so they set the meetings and the pace."

Robb said the fair-funding group thought it had achieved its goals with the last lawsuit but the Legislature created the current problems by cutting state revenue through tax cuts.

"They went ahead and kept cutting revenue," Robb said. "We get to 2009, and everyone is surprised there is a deficit. They are blaming the economy. The recession certainly didn't help it. But this budget train wreck has been coming since 2006."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder said threatening the Legislature with another lawsuit doesn't help solve the state's fiscal crisis.

"Obviously, it's disappointing to many of us that our superintendents have chosen that route," said Yoder, R-Overland Park. "We are all working hard to pitch in and find a way out of the current fiscal crisis. Suing for money that we don't have is creating more problems, as opposed to finding solutions."

Santa Fe Trail is one of the districts that has joined the group. Superintendent Steve Pegram said the Legislature is not keeping a promise it made after the 1999 lawsuit.

"I'm disappointed that adults who make promises and pass laws won't keep their word," he said. "I think if they showed any signs of trying to work through this, I don't think you would have all of these school districts doing this again. None of us want to sue the state."

Silver Lake district superintendent Randy Freeman said board members had decided not to join the group for now.

"The board's position is that we aren't going to participate in the lawsuit," he said. "We talked about it at two different meetings, and their position was at this time they didn't feel like the state has any money, and it wouldn't necessarily benefit students to be involved in that."

The group will meet Dec. 18 at the Salina school district office, Robb said.

"We will go from there," Pegram said. "We don't have a lot of ways to advocate for our kids. We can talk to our legislators until we are blue in the face. They do what they want to do."