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Published in Print: June 14, 2006, as Kansas’ Record K-12 Spending Plan Heads to Court

Kansas’ Record K-12 Spending Plan Heads to Court

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Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas signed a record-high K-12 education budget of nearly $2.9 billion last month, calling the $466 million increase in state aid over the next three years a “historic commitment to our children’s schools.”

Historic, perhaps, but will it be enough to pass muster with the state’s highest court later this month? As educators, legislators, and others across the state await the Kansas Supreme Court’s latest decision in the 7-year-old school finance case, Montoy v. State, the answer depends on whom you ask.

“The massive increases in total funding, and the changes to the allocation of those funds, all respond directly to the issues of concern to this court,” lawyer Alok Ahuja wrote in a June 2 court brief he filed on behalf of the state.

Last June, the supreme court said that the $2.4 billion the legislature had approved for schools last year was not enough to provide a “suitable” education, which the Kansas Constitution guarantees to all students in the state. After lawmakers appropriated an extra $148 million in a two-week special session, the justices relented, saying that “the present solution may not be ideal. However, it is approved for interim purposes.”

The court retained jurisdiction over the case and required lawmakers either to comply with the recommendations of a 2001 cost study prepared for the legislature by the Denver-based consulting firm Augenblick & Myers, which called for an additional $568 million in the 2006-07 school year, or conduct their own audit—which they did. That study, conducted by the Legislative Post Audit Committee, said schools would need an additional $400 million for the 2006-07 school year to help students meet the state’s standards.

Some lawmakers, though, doubt their latest budget will suffice, even though it increases basic per-pupil state aid from $4,257 to $4,316 and targets more aid to both struggling and limited-English proficient students.

“If the court remains consistent with earlier decisions in the Montoy case, they will have to reject it,” said Sen. John L. Vratil, a Republican and the vice chairman of the state Senate’s education committee.

Next Steps?

Alan L. Rupe, the Wichita lawyer representing the plaintiffs, agrees that the state most likely will face an unhappy panel of justices when oral arguments are heard on June 22. He supports the finding of the legislative audit and believes that the case would have been resolved if legislators had followed that audit’s recommendations.

“They’ve got the road map for adequacy and equity right in front of them,” he said.

If the court decides against the state, it could impose fines, order lawmakers to redirect education money, close schools, or find lawmakers in contempt, among other possibilities, Mr. Rupe said.

Gov. Sebelius, a Democrat, has not made any comments on what will happen if the court rejects the spending package, according to Megan Ingmire, a spokeswoman for the governor. The governor, who is up for re-election this fall, stands by the court’s authority to determine whether the budget is constitutional, Ms. Ingmire wrote in an e-mail last week.

But Mr. Ahuja, the state’s lawyer in the case, questions whether the supreme court even has the power to rule on the new school funding plan and is asking the court to dismiss the case. Under the Kansas Constitution, “the court can only review trial court decisions based on the facts found, and evidence presented, in the trial court,” he wrote in the state’s brief. He contends the court is no longer dealing with the evidence in the original case—the school financing system in place in 1999.

Furthermore, the state argues that the new budget complies with the June 2005 court order, even though it falls short of the Legislative Post Audit Committee study.

“The post-audit study is a policy recommendation for use by the legislature in formulating a school funding package,” the brief says. “It is not an exact, scientific calculation of what amount of money is ‘suitable.’ ”

Court Authority

The state high court’s action in the case could have far-reaching effects for lawmakers, schools, and even the justices themselves, observers say.

To prepare annual budgets, most school districts need to know by the last week in July what they will be allocated from the state, according to Mr. Rupe. Even if the court issued a decision June 22, the day that it hears arguments in the case, the legislature would have to scramble to act, and districts would have little time to adjust their fiscal 2007 budgets.

Many in Kansas are also curious to see what would happen to the court itself should it reject the spending plan.

During last year’s special session, the House and the Senate considered several constitutional amendments that would have curtailed the court’s authority to issue such orders. None of the plans won the necessary two-thirds majority in each chamber.

The legislature also has debated proposals to make all judges, including supreme court justices, elected officials. Currently, Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor but face statewide retention elections every six years. One justice will be up for election in November, and two more will face election in two years.

As a result, said Sen. Vratil, if the justices are “more concerned about being retained, or if they are tired of the case, they could accept [the budget].”

Vol. 25, Issue 40, Pages 15,18

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