Districts vote to move ahead on funding suit

NEWTON — A coalition of school districts voted Friday to file a lawsuit against the state over education funding.

The soonest the case would be filed is probably late summer, said John Robb, the lead attorney for Schools for Fair Funding.

Seventy-two Kansas school districts, including Wichita, support Schools for Fair Funding's litigation against the state.

Legislators are trying to make no additional cuts to K-12 education, which makes up more than half of the state's budget, as they decide how to make up shortfalls in tax revenue, said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.

"The school districts need to wait and see what happens," said Schodorf, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. "School districts need to be part of the solution."

School leaders said they would be happy to see a resolution to education funding without filing a lawsuit, but they said it doesn't appear that will happen.

"The reason for this action is for all the kids in Kansas," Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers said. "It's very important our kids are served."

The Supreme Court said last week that a school finance case that was dismissed in 2006 can't be reopened to put recent cuts to funding on trial. Instead, the schools would have to file a new lawsuit, which Robb said would add six months to the process.

The coalition in December agreed to a new lawsuit if the bid to reopen the 2006 case failed, but called for a vote first.

Wichita and school district leaders statewide said they never saw litigation against the state as a short-term fix, and they are considering cutting programs and staff as they brace for state funding reductions next school year.

Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, said although he thinks schools have tried to intimidate legislators with lawsuit threats, it won't affect how much money K-12 education receives for next school year. More money is simply not available, he said.

"The lawsuit won't have much impact until down the road a few years," said McLeland, chairman of the House Education Budget Committee. "We have to look at what we have now."

The state has pumped nearly $756 million more into K-12 education since 2006, after the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the state wasn't funding schools adequately. Legislators adopted a three-year school funding plan in 2006, but it fell short of its target last year, when state aid to schools was cut by roughly $300 million.

Education is the only governmental entity that the state constitution requires the Legislature to fund.

At their meeting Friday in Newton, Schools for Fair Funding members voted to form a 16-person steering committee to respond to pressing issues instead of always waiting until the monthly meeting of more than 70 districts, Robb said.

Wichita superintendent John Allison volunteered to serve on the committee, as did Goddard superintendent Charles Edmonds.

Robb said the lawsuit can't be filed until late summer because of rules regarding suing the state, including a four-month waiting period to file a suit against the Legislature.

School leaders also talked about current legislation affecting them, claiming some of the measures are punitive.

One bill introduced would have prohibited schools from sponsoring litigation against the state out of taxpayer funds, as most of Schools for Fair Funding members do. The proposal didn't make it out of a House committee.

Schodorf, a former Wichita school board member, said she didn't see legislators' attitudes toward schools improving as a lawsuit progresses.

"There will be a lasting backlash for some of the school districts," she said.