Politics & Government

Uncertainty about court decision hangs over Kansas Legislature, school districts

File photo

Kansas lawmakers were relieved to finish their legislative session in early May this year after last year’s marathon session stretched into mid-June, but that relief could be short-lived.

If the Kansas Supreme Court rejects the Legislature’s recent school finance fix, lawmakers could find themselves stuck in Topeka again this June and faced with the threat of the closure of the state’s schools.

The court will review the Legislature’s recent actions at a Tuesday hearing and could issue a ruling within a few weeks on whether the bill the Legislature passed in March meets its demand to fix inequities in school funding.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who served as an attorney for the state in an earlier school finance case, said he would be astonished if the court does not hand down a ruling before the Legislature returns for sine die, the official ceremonial end of the legislative session, on June 1.

If the court rules in the state’s favor, schools will no longer face the threat of closure in July and lawmakers will be able to begin their re-election campaigns. If it doesn’t, both districts and the Legislature could be thrown into tumult as the court’s June 30 deadline to fix school funding or face a shutdown of schools approaches.

“There’s probably not one segment of our population in the state that’s not going to be affected one way or the other by this decision,” said Todd White, the incoming superintendent of the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, one of the districts that testified in favor of the bill.

White said he hopes the court will view the legislation as an earnest attempt to satisfy the ruling on a tight time line. He also said he doesn’t think anyone in the state would want to see more than 400,000 students unable to attend school.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said in an e-mail that the Legislature “responded to the ruling in good faith and held schools and students harmless” and that he expects “the court to do the same.”

Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, are already predicting that the Legislature’s fix will be rejected by the court, which will send lawmakers scrambling in June. The legislative session’s ceremonial end, sine die, which in Latin means “without day,” could end up stretching on for several days.

I think sine die becomes a special session by another name.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita

“I think sine die becomes a special session by another name,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who lodged a constitutional protest against the bill. “I don’t know how the court could accept what was done.”

‘It was chaotic’

The legislation, which signed by Gov. Sam Brownback in April, changes the way the state calculates equalization aid for property-poor school districts that are unable to raise as much local tax revenue as property-rich districts. No district will see a cut to its funding, but only 23 school districts will see an increase to their state funding.

The time line is strikingly similar to 2006 when the court handed down a ruling in Montoy v. State of Kansas, an earlier school finance case, after a May hearing and lawmakers were called back to Topeka for a special session in June.

“It was chaotic for 10 to 12 days,” recalled Ward. “And we had much better leadership. We had a better governor … and the people sitting in the chairs were more reasonable. And it was chaotic.”

Ward said that if schools are closed, effigies of lawmakers will be hung around the state. He said it’s unlikely that the Legislature would let that happen, but he isn’t certain.

“People ask me all the time if they will close schools. If you were to ask me even two weeks ago: Are the Republicans going to nominate Donald Trump? I would’ve said, there’s just no way. They’re crazy, but they’re not suicidal,” he said. “Same thing here.”

King said he would be surprised and disappointed if the court rules against the state, citing the hundreds of pages of hearing testimony that lawmakers submitted to the court as evidence of their rationale for the equity fix.

This is about how you divide money, not how much you put in.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence

“This is about how you divide money, not how much you put in,” he said. “There is no disputing that this Legislature invested more time and effort into establishing what equity is and meeting that definition than any legislature at least in my political lifetime.”

However, King admits that a victory isn’t certain and that ruling against the state would send the Legislature into upheaval.

King said he has waited with bated breath for major court rulings before, but that “if the court threatens to close schools … over less than 1 percent of the K-12 budget, what happens in the next month and a half will scare me more than any of those things.”

King said the dispute before the court is not about the size of the pie, but how it is sliced. “What we are fighting over right now is the Supreme Court has said those slices are 1 percent off,” he said, calling the threat of closure disproportionate.

Level up or level down

John Robb, an attorney for the Wichita school district and other plaintiff districts, recalled that in 2006 the Legislature passed school finance reforms only when staring down the threat of closure in July.

Robb said the bill passed in March failed to narrow the gaps between property-rich and property-poor school districts.

Wichita won’t see an extra penny in state funding from the school funding plan that passed, but would have seen nearly $10 million if lawmakers had fully funded the old equalization method.

Johnson County lawmakers strongly opposed alternative bills, which would have steered some state money away from Johnson County school districts to Wichita and other districts.

They can either level up or they can level down. Leveling up, of course, requires more money … Johnson County won’t let them level down. And their budget won’t let them level up.

John Robb, an attorney for the Wichita school district

“There are two ways they can fix it. They can either level up or they can level down. Leveling up, of course, requires more money … Johnson County won’t let them level down. And their budget won’t let them level up,” Robb said, explaining the political dilemma.

The budget passed by lawmakers Monday requires Brownback to make more cuts in state spending. An additional $35 million or more for school funding won’t be easy to find if the court rules in the plaintiff districts’ favor.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, also predicted that the court would reject the Legislature’s action as insufficient, but was uncertain how to resolve the issue after that.

“I don’t know what they’re going to try if they don’t deal with the revenue situation,” he said. “They can come back and do some other stuff, but until they actually hunker down and do something with revenue, I don’t know what the out is for them in terms of solving this problem.”

The old school finance formula gave school districts aid to supplement their local option budgets – money drawn from local property taxes – if they fell below the 81.2 percentile for average property value per student.

The bill that passed in March uses median property value per student to determine supplemental aid instead, which results in smaller gains for school districts.

Opponents say the bill falls far short of the court’s demand, but supporters note that this method is already used for equalizing capital outlay funds, the other pool of money for which the court ordered legislators to ensure equity.

“The goal was to keep the courts from closing our schools. We answered the court’s ruling by implementing the formula that the courts determined to be equitable,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chair and one of the bill’s architects. “This method is best for all districts, not just the ones that are suing the state.”

Diane Gjerstad, a spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, defended the district’s rationale for mounting the lawsuit.

“This is an issue of equity, of constitutionality,” she said. “The students in Wichita deserve the same access to high-quality education as students from property-wealthy districts. So it’s not pitting kids against each other, it’s about having a system that evens the playing field.”

The Wichita district estimates that it will lose $26 million over three years under the school finance bills passed this and last year by the Legislature. The district is already considering budget cuts, including cutting teaching positions and eliminating some programs, in the face of the lost funding.

Gjerstad said that if the court rules against the state, a school funding fix could still be difficult because lawmakers will “have to work through all of those emotions and the discord that will be generated from being called back to the special session.”

White said the uncertainty about the ruling has caused the Blue Valley district to delay many of its budget decisions for next year.

“I mean at this point in time we already would have had much of our budget put together, we’d be in the final stages of negotiations with our employees on contracts,” he said. “And all of those things at this point are in limbo.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3