Special Session Called to Deal With Kansas School-Aid Showdown

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert asks a question during arguments in a lawsuit over the state’s school funding formula. The court’s ruling that the formula is inequitable has led to a showdown between the justices and state lawmakers.
Kansas Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert asks a question during arguments in a lawsuit over the state’s school funding formula. The court’s ruling that the formula is inequitable has led to a showdown between the justices and state lawmakers.
—Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
| Updated: June 9, 2016
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In order to avoid a school-funding shutdown looming at the end of the month, Kansas politicians will hold a special session to attempt to address a state supreme court order to more equitably fund their schools.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's June 7 call for a special session came a week after several top Kansas Republican lawmakers threatened to defy yet another court order to provide poor districts more money or not be allowed to distribute any state aid. Over the last few weeks, local district officials have been writing contingency plans on how they would proceed without $4 billion in state aid.

On May 27—for the second time this year—the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the legislature's funding formula on the grounds that it does not equitably distribute state aid among its school districts.

The legislature, which officially ended its session last June 1, will have until the end of the month to figure out a new finance formula or the state supreme court says it will prohibit any state aid from being distributed.

The special session comes on the cusp of what's expected to be a hotly contested election season where a large portion of the legislators are up for reelection.

Parents and teachers would not be happy with schools shut down due to lack of state aid.

Lack of Consensus

Several of the state's top legislators said last week that there is no consensus on what to do next. Some don't want to do anything at all.

"[These legislators] have gone out of their way to pick a fight," said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican, emphasizing the seriousness of the threat. "It's gotten to a breaking point."

A ruling on whether the new funding formula is adequate is expected later this summer. If the state loses that case, the legislature will be forced to find close to $400 million more for Kansas' districts.

The case, Gannon v. Kansas, was brought by four poor school districts in 2010. The court first ruled in 2014 that the state's funding formula was inequitable.

After the governor and legislature made another round of cuts to state aid for districts, the high court again ruled in February that the finance formula was inequitable. The court estimated that the formula left districts more than $54 million short in annual funding. In that ruling, the court first said it would shut down the state's school districts if the legislature didn't come up with a satisfactory formula by June 30.

The legislature, late in its session, quickly—and Democrats said illegally—pushed through a bill known as the Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act. The law would have put $2 million more a year into the school finance formula and done it in a way that the state's wealthy districts wouldn't suffer financially.

In its ruling issued in late May, the court described the state's current funding formula as still inequitable and disproportionately burdensome on local taxpayers. The justices said that "political necessities" were irrelevant to their review, and that if schools were to close, state lawmakers, not the court, would be to blame.

"Simply put, the legislature's unconstitutional enactment is void; it has not performed its duty," said the ruling, signed by all seven justices.

The state education department estimates that satisfying the ruling will cost the state between $38 million and $51 million a year.

In reacting to the ruling, the governor and state lawmakers didn't mince words.

"The court has yet again demonstrated it is the most political body in the state of Kansas," said Gov. Brownback. He referred to the ruling as "political brinksmanship." House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican, said the court was "holding children hostage."

But for leaders of the state's poorest districts, who have frozen teacher salaries, implemented four-day school weeks, and, as a last resort, dramatically increased local property taxes, the court's ruling was a relief, and they amped up the pressure for the legislature to increase funding.

"Shutting down the school system on July 1 would have disastrous effects on our fine public schools and state," the Kansas Association of School Boards said in a statement. "We strongly urge our elected leaders to continue working on providing a constitutional system for all of our students and resolve this issue as soon as possible."

Power Struggle

The case has become one of the starkest examples in the country of how much power state supreme courts have in shaping school finance.

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The legislature had to make deep state budget cuts in recent years after lawmakers in 2012 made a series of income-tax reductions they said were intended to spur the economy, which has not yet come to fruition.

Brownback hasn't made clear what he or senior Republican officials would propose in the special session. The state's Democrats, who are in the minority, have proposed to revert to an old formula, an effort the court has describe as a "safe harbor."

In response to the supreme court's school finance decision and other rulings, state legislators in recent months have campaigned to have the appointed justices removed from office this fall. Kansas voters can remove appointed judges in what are known as retention votes.

Vol. 35, Issue 34, Page 20

Published in Print: June 8, 2016, as Kansas Districts Gird for Funding Shutdown After Court Ruling
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