Politics & Government

School constitutional amendment won't happen in this session, Senate president says

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle File photo

A constitutional amendment to keep Kansas school districts from suing for additional funding in the future appears dead for this legislative session.

Kansas lawmakers finished their work on school funding for the session Monday by passing a fix for an $80 million error discovered in a new law intended to raise spending by more than $500 million over five years.

Now it’s up to the Kansas Supreme Court to decide whether the Legislature’s plan — approved by Gov. Jeff Colyer — provides adequate funding for public education.

Lawmakers haven’t passed the constitutional amendment some wanted to combat what they see as never-ending lawsuits over school funding. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, effectively ruled out passage of an amendment during this session, which must end Friday.

But she left open the possibility of pursuing an amendment if there is a special session later.

“Not at all,” Wagle said when asked if she thought an amendment would move through the legislative process this week.

The acknowledgment marked a sharp reversal from early April, when Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, blocked action on school funding for two days, saying they wanted the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment first. The two senators quickly backed off the blockade, and Denning apologized.

A House committee advanced an amendment to the House floor, but the proposal hasn’t been debated. The amendment would give the Legislature the sole power to set total spending levels for education.

Lawmakers may have to meet in a special session this summer if the court finds the plan doesn't adequately fund schools.

An amendment is "much more likely during a special session," Wagle said.

Business and agricultural groups in favor of an amendment have organized as the Coalition for Fair Funding. The coalition includes the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Contractors Association, among others.

The lobbying effort has faced a steep challenge. To become part of the state constitution, an amendment must pass the House and Senate with two-thirds support and then must be approved by a majority of voters statewide.

Lack of support from Democrats as well as moderate Republicans makes passing an amendment difficult.

“Maybe she’s finally counted. I’m not surprised,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita. “The votes aren’t there. They haven’t been there all session, so I’m glad she’s finally realizing reality.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, would not rule out action on an amendment, however. He said nothing is ever “off the table.”

“We still have some work left to do and we’ll see how these next couple days ago,” Ryckman said.

Lawmakers sent Gov. Colyer a bill Monday that fixes an $80 million error in the school funding plan. If uncorrected, the error would result in schools receiving nearly $80 million less than intended next year.

The Senate approved the bill 30-9 after the House passed it 92-27 on Saturday. Colyer is expected to sign the bill.

The error came about when lawmakers mandated school districts raise at least some of their funds through local property taxes in what is known as a local option budget. Under the requirement, districts must have local option budgets equal to at least 15 percent of their total state aid. In practice, every district already has an LOB higher than 15 percent. But lawmakers hope that by mandating an LOB of 15 percent that the Supreme Court will credit them for the funding.

“I think especially with the new language coming over from the House that mandates the 15 percent LOB becomes part of the base, I think they’re going to try that first,” Wagle said, explaining why an amendment to the constitution will not be considered this week.

It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will agree with the Legislature’s stance and credit the money generated by setting a minimum LOB level as state funding. An LOB of 15 percent at all districts represents more than $500 million annually.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, voted for the bill but said the Supreme Court has previously rejected the argument in favor of requiring a minimum LOB. The court has also warned against over-reliance on funds generated through the LOB, he said.

“I think we’re treading on some rather thin ice here” in including the 15 percent LOB requirement, Hensley said.

Denning said the Supreme Court crediting the money generated through the LOB requirement as state aid could be a game changer. “Shame on them” if the court doesn’t recognize it, he said.

The Kansas Attorney General’s office has a week to submit briefs to the Supreme Court about why the Legislature’s school funding plan is adequate. Oral arguments before the court are expected in May.

“As to whether the Supreme Court is going to see that this is enough, we really just don’t know,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg.