School finance decision no surprise to educators
The superintendents of the De Soto schools said a Kansas District Court judge's ruling last week finding the state's school finance formula unconstitutional didn't come as a surprise.
In a preliminary ruling last week, Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock found the state's 1992 school-finance formula unconstitutional and gave the Legislature and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius until July 1 of next year to fix it.
Bullock dismissed claims that funding wasn't connected to classroom achievement and found the current formula underfunded by $1 billion a year.
Bullock also found:
¢ The system provided an unequal disbursement of state funds.
¢ The state wasn't providing its districts enough money to educate at-risk students and those lacking English proficiency.
De Soto Superintendent Sharon Zoellner and Eudora Superintendent Marty Kobza said the ruling wasn't so much an indictment of the school-finance formula as it was the Legislature's failure to adequately fund it. The ruling reinforced their shared conclusion that "no formula will work without adequate funding."
"I think it means to the Eudora School District is just what we've been saying all along: that we are not being funded at a suitable level," Kobza said.
That shouldn't come as a surprise to the Legislature, Zoellner said. The Legislature's own study released last year found the state was underfunding school K-12 education by $852 million, she said.
"We're in the top 10 in student achievement and the bottom 10 in funding," she said "We as a state have to put our money where our mouth is."
The ruling was preliminary. Bullock will issue his final ruling July 1, 2004, after considering any legislative action to address his finding. Sen. John Vratil, who also serves as USD 232's attorney, said that would apparently preclude an appeal until after the Legislative session concludes in May.
But neither Kobza nor Zoellner was confident the Legislature would make use of the window Bullock provided.
"If I were to speculate -- which isn't a good thing to do -- I would say if the Legislature put more money in base state aid, a lot of their issues with Judge Bullock would go away, Kobza said.
No one seemed willing to talk about raising taxes, and "it's going to take revenue to fund the current formula," Zoellner said.
Vratil said it could well take the final ruling to motivate a legislative response.
"By releasing a preliminary ruling, my guess is Judge Bullock has given those in Legislatures who don't want to do anything an excuse to do nothing," the Leawood Republican said. "My guess is those of us who want to do something will press on."
Overall, Vratil said there was something in the ruling for everyone to like and dislike. He approved of those parts of the ruling that confirmed public education was "grossly underfunded" and said at-risk and bi-lingual education needed more money.
But, Vratil took exception to parts of the ruling.
"Judge Bullock said the state should provide all funding for public schools and only state money can be used," he said. "What I dislike about the ruling is finding the state Legislature should have complete control of our education system and there should be no local control. I think that is absolutely wrong."
The implication is that the state had claim for state distribution all revenue from local options budgets districts now use to supplement state per-pupil aid and sales tax revenue like Johnson County districts are now getting and the Douglas County Commission is considering. It would also preclude money from foundations and private donations, Vratil said.
"I also disagree with that portion of the decision that says every student should achieve at the same level," he said. "I don't believe any thing in our laws or Constitution requires that.
"I do believe every child should have an equal opportunity."
Kobza rejected that conclusion, noting that state courts had upheld local option budgets on multiple occasions.
In an exception to Vratil's statement, state Sen. Kay O'Connor found nothing in the ruling to applaud. If the ruling motivated some to attempt a dramatic increase in base state aid, it would be done over objections, she said.
"I refuse to be blackmailed by a judicial decision to increase taxes to appease proponents for more and more and more money for education," she said. "I will continue to support any effort to increase accountability, local control and the best educational opportunities parents can find for their children."
At the encouragement of constituents, O'Connor said she would look into ways to amend the Kansas Constitution to prevent judges from pressuring the Legislature on policy matters.
Bullock the school finance formula was inequitable, citing an $11,000 disparity between the per-pupil state aid given to the Liberal school district ($5,656) and that of tiny Nes Tres La Go district in Ness County ($16,986). De Soto and Eudora school district's were near the lower range of those extremes, Zoellner and Kobza said. Zoellner said USD 232 received about $6,500 per pupil, while Kobza USD 491 received less than $6,000 per student.
Nonetheless, Zoellner said the USD 232 Board support the weighting factors that increased state aid to small districts.
"It's not totally fair to look at that spread," she said. "They have 24 students at the elementary level. There are no economies of scale.
"Our Board has taken the position that all district need adequate funding for the state to prosper. Those kids grow up and move to Johnson County."
Should the Legislature start writing a new school-finance formula, Zoellner said her concern was that the effort included administrators who have developed expertise in school funding. A new formula could become a vehicle for political agendas and not solutions, she said, citing the calls for building-based funding.
"We have it down to the penny where we spend our dollars," she said. "Building-based accounting would require more administrative positions. Our teachers' salaries are already woefully low. Creating more paperwork every district has to go through will only make it worse."