Politics & Government

Funding law in effect during review, so schools have money come June 30

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The Kansas Supreme Court will allow the state’s new school funding law to go into effect while justices decide whether it is constitutional, eliminating the possibility that schools will run out of money at the end of June.

In an order late Monday afternoon, the court said it will hold off on any further action before deciding the law’s constitutionality.

The justices will hear oral arguments on the new law on July 18. A decision could come soon after.

The Legislature passed, and Gov. Sam Brownback approved, a new funding plan that will boost education spending. But attorneys for a number of school districts – including Wichita – that launched a lawsuit years ago challenging the state’s funding levels say it is not enough.

The new funding plan came in response to a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that found the previous law unconstitutional. The court had given the state a June 30 deadline to enact a new formula.

Neither side wanted a school shutdown. Both sides agreed to allow the law to go into effect while the court deliberates, the order said.

“We didn’t want there to be a gap between the school closing date and the decision,” said attorney Alan Rupe, who represents the school districts. “So it was basically a no-brainer to keep that in place until the court reached a decision.”

Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, called the order good news.

“It gives the districts some assurances about how to move forward past that sunset date,” Willis said.

Wichita public schools had outlined numerous consequences if June 30 came and went without a funding system in place. Meeting payroll, payments to vendors and maintenance would become problematic, the district warned.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, was heavily involved in a legislative committee that helped craft an initial version of the formula. She called the court’s decision ahead of oral arguments a “wonderful surprise.”

“I am breathing that same sigh of relief that our school districts across the state are likely breathing tonight. I am very relieved that schools can continue to operate and function,” Rooker said.

Schools could still be disrupted, however, if the court rules the law unconstitutional in late July and requires immediate action from the Legislature.

Districts must typically publish their budgets in early August. It’s unclear whether lawmakers could act fast enough to allow districts to comply with the requirements.

The school finance formula is designed to better target funding for at-risk students than current law does. The Supreme Court cited underperformance by a quarter of Kansas students in its ruling. The bill also funds all-day kindergarten.

The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, would receive about $17 million more in general state aid next year under the plan. Beyond Wichita, 230 other districts also would receive additional general state aid, and 55 would lose general state aid.

“Certainly as we look at new monies coming in, a lot of that stream is at targeted programs,” Willis said. “That’s something we need to keep in mind as we make our plans for funds coming to us.”

The bill would give schools overall about $195 million more in the next budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.

The order indicates the districts who sued plan to challenge the constitutionality of the new law. The Kansas Constitution has been interpreted previously to require both adequate and equitable funding among districts.

“We’re going to argue not only the adequacy but the equity piece, too,” Rupe said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, in a court filing last week, said the new funding formula complies with the court’s previous opinion.

“Senate Bill 19 … is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose standards,” Schmidt wrote, referring to educational benchmarks the court has used previously.

Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias and Dion Lefler of The Eagle and Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman