Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers advance school funding bill despite last-minute objections

A Kansas Senate committee passed Gov. Laura Kelly’s school spending bill Wednesday, despite last-minute opposition from a coalition of 50 school districts that had previously supported the measure.

It now heads to the Senate floor.

Last year lawmakers added $548 million to be phased into the state’s $4 billion education budget by 2022, as part of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state’s school spending.

But the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the plan did not account for inflation and gave the state until April 15 to address the problem.

Kelly’s bill, HB 142 would add about $92 million a year for the next four years, or about $360 million by 2023.

But on Tuesday, Schools for Fair Funding, an advocacy group that represents some of the state’s largest school districts, announced it had pulled its support of the bill. The group claims that a “drafting error” underestimated actual total amount: $900 million.

Under its interpretation, the roughly $92 million would “stack” over time, meaning that $90 million would be added in 2020, $180 million in 2021 and so forth.

Critics warned that the increase Schools for Fair Funding seeks would force lawmakers to choose between education and other priorities, like highways and social services.

Less than a month ago, the group spoke in favor of Kelly’s proposal. State board of education officials say there was no error.

“They went through the calculations and there’s different ways you can do that, but in the board’s opinion, that’s what they adopted,” said Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education. “We even asked them if they wanted to go back and do it over again and they said ‘no.’”

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Education and Finance, said she met with members of Schools for Fair Funding before the hearing Wednesday to discuss what she called an “about-face.”

“The coalition of school districts disagrees. “Everybody circled the wagons and said ‘my side’s right,’ ‘no, my side’s right,’” said John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding.

“So I guess what that means is, well, everybody can think their side’s right and we’ll go see what the court says,” Robb said.

Robb said the group first became aware of a problem when Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, raised the issue in a committee meeting on Feb. 6. At the time, the group stood by its support of the bill.

But by Feb. 26, Schools for Fair Funding had reversed itself, according to an email obtained by The Eagle. That day, Schools for Fair Funding lobbyist Bill Brady emailed senators and attached amended committee testimony that said “it is now clear that Senator Denning was correct and there is a drafting error” in the legislation.

The group’s reversal could still upend the debate over school funding as lawmakers face a ticking clock. Attorney General Derek Schmidt has a mid-April deadline to brief the Supreme Court on any changes and Republican leaders have promised action in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers who support $92 million in additional spending could have to decide whether to back Kelly, Schools for Fair Funding, or look for a compromise. Meanwhile, opponents of additional funding may be able to exploit those divisions and slow down or halt the process.

Kelly, who campaigned on her support for education funding, isn’t backing away from the $90 million plan. Her office says it used figures from the Kansas State Department of Education. The agency says there’s no error.

“The goal of this bill is to address inflation, end the litigation and meet the needs of our students and schools. We look forward to working with lawmakers to settle this once and for all,” Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said.

Robb dismissed criticism of what Schools for Fair Funding wants. He said lawmakers during Gov. Sam Brownback’s time in office didn’t seem as concerned by the future financial impact of legislation.

“It seems like a disingenuous argument,” Robb said.

Schools for Fair Funding been successful arguing in court that Kansas schools are inadequately funded. Over the past few years, lawmakers have approved hundreds of millions in new education spending in response to the group’s ongoing lawsuit.

State Board member Jim McNiece, who represents part of southern Kansas, said Kelly’s legislation accurately reflects the board’s recommendation.

“Sure, we could always ask for more. We asked for what we thought was legitimate and it’s been endorsed by the governor and I’m sure others can always find fault with it — on both sides of the aisle,” McNiece said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, suggested that a proposal he previously offered to add additional funding for two years could act as a compromise. If the Supreme Court keeps control of the case, the court could keep “our feet to the fire” in future years, he said.

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