Politics & Government

Districts, Kansas rack up legal bills from school finance case

VIDEO: Brownback on school finance decision

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses the school finance case. (Bryan Lowry/The Wichita Eagle)
Up Next
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses the school finance case. (Bryan Lowry/The Wichita Eagle)

The Wichita school district has spent more than $1.6 million on the school finance lawsuit against the state since 2010.

Republican policymakers say that’s money that could have instead gone into classrooms. But one of the district’s attorneys says that figure pales in comparison to the money on the line for Wichita and other school districts in the case, which contends that the state has not adequately funded schools.

Three other plaintiff districts have chipped in for the lawsuit as well.

The state has spent more than $1.4 million on outside counsel as of January, according to the attorney general’s office, with most of that going to the Wichita firm Hite, Fanning & Honeyman.

That doesn’t include the cost of the eight attorneys in the attorney general’s office who have worked on the case since 2010. The office does “not track staff hours on cases like this, but it is at least many hundreds of hours,” said Jennifer Rapp, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

The case, Gannon v. State of Kansas, has bounced back and forth between the Kansas Supreme Court and district court over the past six years. Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that school funding was unconstitutionally inequitable.

Lawmakers must act to address the decision before July 1 or risk closure of the state’s schools.

John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the school districts, said the case is “about the kids and what the kids are entitled to under the constitution. And if you don’t enforce constitutional rights, it’s like not having them.”

Everybody’s tired of this. But just because we’re tired of it doesn’t mean we’re going to throw the kids under the bus until it’s fixed.

John Robb, a Newton attorney representing Wichita and three other school districts

Gov. Sam Brownback’s spokesman, Eileen Hawley, saw things differently.

“Raiding classroom dollars and repurposing them for endless litigation does not serve Kansas students well,” Hawley said in an e-mail when asked about the cost of the litigation.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses the school finance case. (Bryan Lowry/The Wichita Eagle)

Costs of litigation

The $1.6 million spent by the Wichita district includes both the cost of legal fees and member dues to Schools for Fair Funding, the group representing the school districts, from the inception of the case through the current school year.

The Kansas City, Kan. school district has spent nearly $700,000 during the same period.

The other two districts, Dodge City and Hutchinson, provided spending through the 2014-2015 school year.

Dodge City has spent about $220,000 between February 2010 and July 2015. Hutchinson spent about $183,000 during that time.

Ray Hemman, the Hutchinson district’s public information officer, said the case has been a net gain for the district’s taxpayers. A 2014 Kansas Supreme Court order to increase equalization aid resulted in $1 million more in state aid for the district over two years.

Robb said the trial court’s initial decision would have netted the state’s schools more than $600 million annually if the Legislature had complied with it. “The annual gain for the clients was a thousand times the annual cost,” Robb said referring to this and a previous school finance case.

‘It doesn’t seem to ever end’

In a September e-mail to supporters, Brownback said Robb was “taking money out of Kansas classrooms to fund his war on taxpayers. He is robbing Peter to pay Robb.”

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House Appropriations chair, made a similar point Friday, saying “it would be best if the Legislature and the schools can work together to come up with a funding solution that’s best for our kids and not just provide a revenue stream for attorneys that does divert money from our schools.

“It doesn’t seem to ever end,” Ryckman said about the litigation.

Raiding classroom dollars and repurposing them for endless litigation does not serve Kansas students well.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said that the Legislature holds the blame for that.

“We are consistently putting the school districts in this position of having to decide to sue by passing school budgets that we know to be unconstitutional,” she said.

Larger question remains

Robb similarly said state policymakers’ resistance to fully funding schools had caused the litigation to drag on for so many years.

“Everybody’s tired of this. But just because we’re tired of it doesn’t mean we’re going to throw the kids under the bus until it’s fixed,” Robb said.

Even after lawmakers respond to the court’s order to ensure equity in school funding, the court will have to decide the larger question of whether school funding is adequate. A decision in the school districts’ favor could result in hundreds of millions more dollars a year for schools across the state.

Democrats recently criticized Republican leaders for including $50,000 in the budget to hire a law firm to advise legislators on school finance. Democrats said this was a sign that GOP lawmakers did not intend to comply with this month’s ruling.

Ryckman said the money is meant to ensure lawmakers understand what the court’s “really asking and how to move forward” and said that “another $50,000 to have the taxpayers’ interest represented could prove to be money well spent.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

  Comments