Politics & Government

AG Schmidt advises Kansas House members on school funding decision

The closer lawmakers get to fully funding fixes for inequities in two school funds, the easier it will be to defend their decisions in court, Attorney General Derek Schmidt told House members on Tuesday.

Schmidt addressed the House Appropriations Committee as it began work to fix inequities in school funding identified in the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month. Lawmakers face a July 1 court deadline.

The attorney general laid out three options: Lawmakers can fully fund equalization of capital outlay and local option budget money between districts, which would need no further court action. They can offer an alternative fix, which would be subject to court review. Or they can do nothing, in which case the court would be able to halt local option budget funds entirely.

Schmidt said his office would defend whatever decision legislators make, but joked that if they choose to do nothing he might have to run for insurance commissioner.

He did advise the committee that the closer the Legislature comes to fully funding equalization, the easier it will be to defend the decision in court.

The Kansas Legislative Research Department calculates the cost of equalization to be $129 million. A pair of Democratic bills in the House and Senate would allocate that and eliminate the need for further court action; Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to this approach.

Legislators asked Schmidt how much leeway the court will give them if they choose an alternative fix. He was hesitant to give an exact number.

“I can’t give you a number for two reasons,” Schmidt said. “One, it would not be prudent. Two, I don’t know.”

“The closer you get (to equalization), the stronger our case will be on remand,” Schmidt said. “If you fund that, hands off, we’re done. If it’s less than that, or different from that, I think they will be looking for us on behalf of the state to make a rational argument, show them why you did something different.”

Reps. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, and Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, raised concern that the funds to equalize local option budget funding won’t necessarily go into the classrooms in every district.

Schmidt said there are other avenues to address that and the Legislature should not let that concern prevent it from addressing the problems identified by the court before July 1. He repeatedly emphasized the need for action before the deadline, just as he did to Senate and House Republican caucus meetings last week.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, said she was amused by the number of times Schmidt reminded lawmakers about the need to act by July 1. “Sometimes you don’t want to hear the truth,” she said.

Schmidt also reminded lawmakers that the court said what the Legislature does on equity can be weighed when a district court considers the question of whether school funding is adequate.

Republican legislators have said the Legislature may be able to shift other portions of the education budget to help cover the cost of closing disparities in local option budget and capital outlay funding. Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said Tuesday that his committee would even consider rewriting parts of the school funding formula.

“Our focus is more on re-equalizing the formula and adding what new money might be necessary to cap that off,” said Masterson, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. He has no plans to consider the Democratic plan to fully fund equalization with money from the state general fund.

If legislators attempt to rewrite the formula, they may do more damage than good and even harm their case on the still pending question about funding adequacy, said Mark Tallman, associate executive director for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“I think what the attorney general was cautioning them very clearly was the lower you get from $130 million, and the more you’re taking them from somewhere else, the harder it’s going to be to defend on adequacy,” said Tallman, who attended the meeting.

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