Politics & Government

Kansas Supreme Court: School funding inequitable (+video)

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called the timing of a school finance decision by the Kansas Supreme Court fishy. The decision was released 90 minutes before the House was set to vote on the state's budget.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called the timing of a school finance decision by the Kansas Supreme Court fishy. The decision was released 90 minutes before the House was set to vote on the state's budget. The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Supreme Court threw state government into turmoil Thursday, ordering the Legislature to fix unfair and unconstitutional school funding by June 30 deadline or risk shutting down school districts statewide.

“The legislature’s chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year,” said the 77-page court ruling in the Gannon school-finance case.

If the Legislature fails to act, the ruling “will mean no constitutionally valid school finance system exists through which funds for fiscal year 2017 can lawfully be raised, distributed, or spent,” the ruling said.

The ruling dealt only with the fairness of distribution of funds between school districts, leaving unanswered for now the question of whether the Legislature provides enough money overall to meet its constitutional burden of “suitable” provision for public education.

The legislature’s chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August.

Kansas Supreme Court ruling

“The legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to equitably, i.e., fairly, allocate resources among the school districts not only creates uncertainty in planning the 2016-2017 school year but also has the potential to interrupt the operation of Kansas’ public schools. We desire to avoid this uncertainty,” the ruling said.

Gov. Sam Brownback, the chief architect of the state “block grant” plan that funds schools, had a muted response to the ruling that it is unconstitutional.

“Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme court is threatening to shut them down,” he said in a three-sentence statement. “We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was more blunt.

“The Supreme Court’s threat to close our schools is nothing more than a political bullying tactic and is an assault on Kansas families, taxpayers and elected appropriators,” she said in a statement. “We will not play their game but will instead do our best to provide a quality education for all Kansas students.”

Both the Senate and the House approved budget bills Thursday that do not allocate money for schools that would satisfy the court’s ruling.

Wichita public schools superintendent John Allison comments on Supreme Court ruling that Kansas school funding is inequitable. (Feb. 11, 2016/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle.)

Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents the plaintiff districts, called the ruling “a win for every kid in Kansas that attends public schools, particularly those kids that are disadvantaged in high poverty areas.”

It is a real victory for kids that cost more to educate, who are minorities, limited English kids, immigrant kids.

Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents the plaintiff school districts

“It is a real victory for kids that cost more to educate, who are minorities, limited English kids, immigrant kids,” Rupe said. “Those kids are going to see the equity dollars returning into the system when the Legislature rolls up their sleeves and complies with the court’s order.”

4 school districts challenged block grant system

In the case, four school districts – Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City – challenged the block grant system passed by the Legislature last year, saying it did not meet the state’s constitutional burden to provide support for public education.

Before that, schools were funded through a complicated formula that included a base state aid amount per pupil plus “weightings” – extra money schools received for educating difficult-to-teach students such as limited-English, poor and at-risk populations.

That formula was replaced by block grants based on each district’s current funding. The idea was basically to hold schools at about their current level of funding for two years while the Legislature crafts a new finance plan.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, did not give a timeline for addressing the ruling Thursday. He also did not endorse the idea of simply reallocating money.

“They (the court) don’t appropriate. We do,” Merrick said.

“These are the representatives of the people,” he said, pointing to the House chamber. “They’re not. They haven’t made a lot of good decisions lately,” he added, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent reversal of the Kansas court’s decision to overturn the death penalty for the Carr brothers.

They don’t appropriate. We do. … They haven’t made a lot of good decisions lately.

House Speaker Ray Merrick talking about the Kansas Supreme Court

John Robb, an attorney for the school districts, said the court did not overstep its authority.

“The court is showing tremendous deference to the legislature in allowing the legislature to … design an equitable system,” he said. “It’s not imposing its own system. They’re not naming numbers. They are just saying, ‘You must do it.’”

Lawmakers react

Some lawmakers questioned the timing of the ruling, coming as lawmakers debated and passed their budgets.

“I think the decision’s a little curious that it’s done on a Thursday when most are done on Friday,” Merrick said. “It looks like it’s politically motivated because of the timing, in my opinion.”

Some lawmakers called for the budget votes to be put on hold.

“The world has changed overnight,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia. “The budget that we have proposed certainly does not have money in it to satisfy the court, so to go in to pass a budget or debate a budget today that does not pass court muster does not make a lot of sense to me.”

The proposed budgets would leave only about $6 million in the state’s general fund at the end of the 2016 fiscal year in June, which likely would not be enough to meet the court’s order.

Merrick had told Republicans on Wednesday that there was no reason to prolong the session and that they could plan on adjourning early if they moved quickly on the budget.

“That’s what we call fantasy,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita. “It comes in the fiction section of the library. We live in the non-fiction section and we have to address the fundamental problems of Kansas.”

Ward predicted that it will take significant work and time for lawmakers to address the court’s order because of the state’s tenuous financial condition.

“Do you create a constitutional crisis and defy the court or do you sit down and begin the hard work of repairing Kansas’ financial situation so that we can address the court ruling?” Ward said.

“Either choice is going to be challenging.”

Many GOP lawmakers bristled at the ruling.

“This is really just a temper tantrum by the Supreme Court saying, ‘We’re running the show here. Do what we say or we’re going to shut down the schools and punish the kids. And we’re going to blame you for it,’” said Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood.

Melcher predicted that conservatives would hold the ruling against the justices when five of the seven court members stand for retention this year.

This is really just a temper tantrum by the Supreme Court saying, ‘We’re running the show here. Do what we say or we’re going to shut down the schools and punish the kids.’

Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood

It’s absurd for the court to consider closing the schools over a small fraction of total funding, said Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank.

“Equity is a constitutional construct that must (and should be) met, but putting more money into the existing equity system would be a perversion of the concept, as districts in wealthy Johnson County are considered ‘poor’ and in need of extra aid while many small rural districts are considered ‘rich’ and ineligible for extra aid,” Trabert said.

Aid is based on the property wealth of districts, not the incomes of the people who live there.

For example, the Burlington school district is the state’s most property-rich, because it includes the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant. The plant generates far more more property tax per student than thousands of homes in Kansas City suburbs.

Remedies ordered by school-finance court

When a three-judge school-finance court ruled in June that the block grant funding failed to meet constitutional muster, setting the stage for the state to appeal to the Supreme Court, the judges ordered specific remedies.

Those remedies were estimated to be about $54 million for the 2015 fiscal year and $73 million for the year ending June 30, said Robb, the attorney for the school districts.

Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner of education who oversees school finance, said equalization aid would amount to $70.9 million for fiscal year 2016 if the old funding system was used.

However, that number would dip to $38.6 million for fiscal year 2017 because plunging oil and tax revenues have affected local property tax, one of the items used to calculate equalization aid.

Dennis emphasized that he was not sure whether the Legislature would have to fund these exact amounts to satisfy the court ruling.

Kansas schools faced a court-ordered shutdown in 2005. That summer, the Kansas Supreme Court threatened to freeze the state’s education budget after lawmakers failed to comply with its order to double the amount of education funding it had budgeted for the 2005-06 school year.

The state came within three days of a shutdown but avoided it with legislation passed during a special session.

Thursday’s ruling is “the most blatant talk” from the Supreme Court since that year, Robb said. He said he is confident lawmakers will fashion a fix.

I think legislators will come around and do their job because that’s what the constitution requires them to do.

John Robb, an attorney for the school districts

“I think legislators will come around and do their job because that’s what the constitution requires them to do,” he said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas; Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3; Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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