Public schools in uncharted territory

School districts are making contingency plans for a possible court-ordered shutdown July 1.
School districts are making contingency plans for a possible court-ordered shutdown July 1. The Wichita Eagle

As they await a Kansas Supreme Court decision, K-12 public schools are in uncharted territory.

Wichita’s USD 259 has shaved two days off the year to save $400,000 while seeking $23 million in budget cuts for next fall. A southeast Kansas district went to a four-day week to finish the year. All districts are making contingency plans for a possible court-ordered shutdown July 1, and otherwise coping with the broken promise that the two-year block grants would provide stable, ample funding.

The potential system closure, though unthinkable and unlikely, still looms because the court has yet to rule on whether the Legislature satisfied its February order to make school funding equitable among property-rich and -poor districts.

School districts contend that House Bill 2655, which became law last month, is unconstitutional because it mostly redistributes flat funding using a less generous equalization formula.

Coming up with the $30 million or more needed to fully fund equalization across districts would be a problem for the state, should the court strike down HB 2655 with the expectation that the Legislature could try again before the court’s June 30 deadline. There is no extra money available because of the dramatic impact of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature 2012 income tax cuts; the fiscal 2017 state budget doesn’t balance as it is, relying on him to make unspecified spending cuts.

In Tuesday’s hearing before the Supreme Court, Wichita attorney Alan Rupe raised the possibility of the court effectively forcing money to be redirected to schools from other state services, while the state advocated some alternative to a shutdown to get by until the 2017 Legislature convenes in January.

The state’s idea of striking all districts’ local option budgets and forgoing supplemental state LOB aid would have the system statewide start the school year about $1 billion short. That would do grave harm to districts and students.

“We’re talking a matter of weeks that we’d be able to pay the bills and have the doors open,” said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

Dodge City superintendent Alan Cunningham said: “We might make it to Halloween.”

Even if the court blessed HB 2655, districts would still face immediate budget problems, because the block-grant plan did not account for higher enrollment and costs. Wichita teachers are being asked to agree to longer days and a shorter school year, or face the loss of librarians and other jobs and the outsourcing of custodial management.

The current suspense doesn’t even involve the main event in the 6-year-old Gannon lawsuit, which concerns adequacy of K-12 school funding statewide. A three-judge lower court’s favored adequacy remedy could cost the state more than $500 million.

Sadly, Kansans fed up with the school-finance wars cannot count on peace anytime soon.