Three top Republican lawmakers say the state doesn’t have to spend $38 million to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order for more equitable school funding.
That contradicts comments from Gov. Sam Brownback, who has said he thinks $38 million is needed to fix inequities identified by the court and prevent a shutdown of schools next month.
The Legislature faces a June 30 deadline to comply with the court’s order. Brownback has called the Legislature back for a special session starting June 23.
Asked if she thought spending $38 million was necessary to comply with the court order, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, replied, “Absolutely not.”
“Their document never mentioned a figure. All they requested was equity, and that can be done with current funds,” Wagle said.
The Legislature passed a bill in March that reshuffled existing funds, but that was rejected by the court in May. Wagle blamed that on the decision to not decrease funding for any school districts, which she said undercut lawmakers’ efforts to equalize funding in the courts’ eyes.
“They’ve never stated a demand for $38 million. What they have demanded is equity,” Wagle said.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, an attorney, has a similar interpretation of the court’s February and May rulings.
“The Kansas Supreme Court has been clear that there are many ways to solve what they see as the equity problem and that new money isn’t mandatory to do it,” King said. “Certainly you can solve it by putting new money in and I’m sure we will consider it, but that isn’t the only way to solve it and we’re looking at other ways to solve it as well.”
Speaking from the bench last month, Justice Dan Biles suggested that there are at least two ways to achieve equity: giving poorer districts more money to bring them level with wealthy districts or capping the spending authority of wealthier districts.
The $38 million figure cited by the governor comes from a Kansas Department of Education analysis of how much it would cost to restore the state’s old equalization formula and fully fund it, an option the court has identified as a “safe harbor” for lawmakers.
Wagle did not rule out the possibility of spending more money.
“I think we’re going to look at everything,” she said. “I sense … that a coalition hasn’t evolved yet to resolve the issue.”
Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman, said he’s working on a funding plan “with lots of input from superintendents around the state.”
He did not go into details, but echoed Wagle’s sentiment that the justices did not specify a dollar amount.
“They said that there’s other options,” Ryckman said. “This is about equalizing and spending the over $4 billion that’s already been appropriated.”
Some Republicans have lamented Brownback’s decision to use the specific dollar figure, one that has been bandied about by Democrats and the plaintiff school districts’ attorneys for months.
“I know there’s a lot of conservatives out there who feel like the governor’s already caved,” said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center. “I do feel like, by him already making statements like he’s making, you change the negotiating ability.”
Brownback said last week that some of the money could come from elsewhere in the education budget.
Asked about lawmakers’ concerns, Brownback’s spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley, said in an e-mail that based “on input from the State’s legal team and the Department of Education, the Governor believes that an additional $38 million in local option budget equalization funding is necessary to meet the equity standard established by the Kansas Supreme Court in its decisions in the Gannon case.”
“However, he has great respect for the legislature’s constitutional power of appropriation,” she continued. “Therefore, they will have to ultimately determine how much, if any, they are willing to increase equalization spending and whether the money to do so comes from within the existing overall K-12 budget or elsewhere. As the Governor said when he announced the special session, he has one goal, which is to stop the Kansas Supreme Court from closing our schools.”
The ‘simplest fix’
Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, but the GOP caucus is not united on how to handle the court order.
Some Republicans are happy that Brownback has set a specific funding target, a rare move for him as governor.
“I think he did the right thing,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, who spoke with the governor the day before he announced the special session.
He said the court strongly implied that this is what it wants the Legislature to do.
“I think that’s the easiest, the simplest fix. And that’s really all I’m interested in doing,” Longbine said, explaining that he thinks anything else risks another rejection from the court.
Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said he was encouraged by the governor’s endorsement of the idea.
“That would solve the problem in a day and be done,” Kerschen said.
King said he’s open to adding new money, but one thing that complicates that decision is that most of it would go to local property tax relief rather than increased funding for schools.
“The vast majority of equalization money goes to taxpayer relief, not the schools,” King said. “And I am for property tax relief, don’t get me wrong, but to me that highlights the insanity of threatening to close schools over funding that doesn’t even go to schools.”
That’s because the equity dispute centers on districts’ local option budgets, money drawn from local property tax revenue.
The state provides equalization aid for property poor districts to supplement their local dollars. But the court ruled the state fell out of compliance when it froze equalization aid last year and enacted block grants.
Restoring the old equalization formula would result in more than $5 million in property tax relief for the Wichita district. Other districts also would benefit. But it would mean cuts in state aid for 96 districts, which are receiving more aid under the block grants than they would under the old formula.
$38 million minimum
Democrats say it would be a mistake to fund less than the full $38 million.
Cory Gibson, superintendent of the Valley Center school district, also said $38 million should be the minimum lawmakers consider to equalize school funding. Plans that spend less put schools at risk of closure on July 1, he added.
Gibson, president of the United School of Administrators of Kansas, said his group hopes lawmakers consider the possibility of a plan that holds all districts harmless, or that doesn’t cut funding from any district. That would kick up the cost of the bill to $50 million.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said the state will have difficulty finding $38 million given its budget constraints. “And I know the 50’s not there.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, a moderate, said she thinks it’s “only fair and right” to include a “hold harmless” provision, saying districts that have already set their budgets shouldn’t pay the cost for legislative actions. She said the state has historically done this when making changes to school finance.
“I never thought we could get out of it without adding more money,” Rooker said. “I think that’s been clear from the get-go.”
John Robb, the attorney for plaintiff school districts, said last week that a “hold harmless” provision would undermine efforts to equalize spending. He warned that the court might reject a bill that contains it.
Robb has repeatedly said lawmakers need to just spend $38 million to fully fund equalization and go home.
Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, predicted that lawmakers will “spend a day or two beating the crap out of the Supreme Court and each other, and then we’ll pass something that spends $38 million.”