State’s high cort rules schools due additional funding
The state is failing in its constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools, and the legislature has three months to correct the infirmity, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled this week.
With the upcoming legislative session beginning in four days, legislators are gearing up for the undertaking while area school districts are hoping for the best.
In an opinion issued Monday, the justices said the state's 301 school districts need more money to provide students with a suitable education. However, it prescribed no specific remedy, giving the Legislature until April 12 to devise an appropriate fix. If not satisfied by legislative action by that date, the Court implied it would provide a solution.
"We do not dictate the precise way in which the legislature must fulfill its constitutional duty. That is for the legislators to decide, consistent with the Kansas Constitution," the Court's opinion stated. "It is clear increased funding will be required. However, increased funding may not in and of itself make the financing formula constitutionally suitable."
Politics driving funding
Justices said past school finance decisions were based on past spending levels and politically compromised rather than the actual costs of educating students.
But Sen. Kay O'Connor, who represents De Soto in the Senate, decried the absence of specific instructions in the ruling and said it was the state's high court that had acted politically.
"The lack of clarity makes it so political," she said. "It's designed to pressure certain groups to make decisions they would like to see.
"I think the judiciary is overstepping its boundaries again. I have no problem with them telling us we're not fulfilling our duties, but I want them to tell me where, how and why."
O'Connor said she would not support any funding plan that included a tax increase.
"We don't need a tax increase," she said. "That would hurt the citizens."
She favored developing a definition of a "suitable education" and tying that to a new school finance formula, O'Connor said.
"I've been calling for that for years," she said.
Freshman Rep. Anthony Brown, De Soto representative in the Kansas House, said justices made it clear a tax increase didn't have to be part of the solution. Although he wasn't prepared to say one wasn't needed, the Eudora Republican said he wasn't heading into his first session with that assumption.
"Most people I talked to during the campaign know I'm not a big tax-and-spend guy," he said. "I'm not prepared to say I wouldn't support one, but I think we need to look at all avenues before doing that.
"That's the responsible way to do it. I think we're going to look at funding education through other means."
House Speaker Doug Mays appointed a bi-partisan committee to start searching for a solution, Brown said. But he questioned whether the justice's deadline could be met because of the late date of the ruling and its lack of specificity.
"I wish they could have given us something to use earlier," Brown said. "Less than a week before the session starts seems poorly planned.
"Now we're going to be dealing with this on the fly. It would have been nice if we could have had an interim committee working on this."
The Court said the equity with which funds are distributed, as well as the actual costs of education, would be critical factors for the legislature to consider in seeking a suitable formula for financing the system.
Court sets deadline
Senator John Vratil (R-Leawood), an attorney for De Soto USD 232, said it was too early to predict what the legislature would do and how it would affect individual school districts. But he didn't think an acceptable solution would need to be started from scratch.
"I don't see the Legislature scrapping everything and starting over," Vratil said. "And I don't think the court suggested that is necessary."
However, Vratil said there was much to be done in a relatively short amount of time.
Reacting to the Court's opinion, superintendents of area school districts welcomed a chance for improvement but won't celebrate until something actually happens.
Base state aid per pupil has stagnated at $3,863 since 2003, an amount De Soto superintendent Sharon Zoellner described as "woefully behind" inflation. State aid was actually higher in 2002, at $3,870.
Zoellner said she hoped for more money in De Soto but she also hoped legislators would approve a plan to benefit schools statewide.
"We've been waiting for a number of years in school districts to have additional funding," she said.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited districts relying heavily on local taxes as evidence the state wasn't doing its job.
"Additional evidence of the inadequacy of the funding is found in the fact that, while the original intent of the provision for local option budgets within the financing formula was to fund 'extra' expenses, some school districts have been forced to use local option budgets to finance general education," the opinion stated.
Local option untouched
De Soto currently relies on local funds for 25 percent of its general operating budget -- the maximum amount allowed by law.
The state caps that amount to prevent inequity for districts that have less local wealth from which to draw.
Some Johnson Country districts, like Shawnee Mission USD 512, are lobbying for the authority to use more local funds, but Zoellner said local control was an issue she needed to discuss further with the De Soto Board of Education.
Vratil said he thought the Court's opinion left the door open for the possibility of allowing more local control. The Court spoke of local option budget in positive rather than negative terms, he said.
Rep. Ray Cox, whose district includes De Soto, Bonner Springs and Basehor-Linwood schools, said he planned to continue communicating with the districts' superintendents regarding their different needs.
The Bonner Springs Republican said he would vote for a tax increase if necessary to garner enough money for schools.
"I would like to see some sort of tax increase in order to fund it properly," he said.
On Aug. 31, the Supreme Court heard arguments for the opinion it issued Monday. Although the district is not directly involved in the case, De Soto joined Blue Valley USD 229 and Olathe USD 233 to file a friend of the court brief stating its position for consideration by the Court.
The Court's opinion follows an appeal of a December 2003 ruling by Shawnee County district court Judge Terry Bullock that said the system fails to provide adequate, fairly distributed money for a suitable education. His ruling supported administrators and patrons from the Dodge City and Salina districts.
The Supreme Court affirmed Bullock's ruling that Kansas public schools were under-funded, a violation of the constitution.
However, the court reversed Bullock's ruling that the finance system violated equal protection and had an unconstitutional, disparate impact on minorities or other classes.
"In order to establish an equal protection violation on this basis, one must show not only that there is a disparate impact, but also that the impact can be traced to a discriminatory purpose," the Court wrote. "No discriminatory purpose was shown by the plaintiffs."
The Supreme Court will stay further proceedings to allow the legislature a reasonable time to correct the present funding shortfalls. In the meantime, the present formula will remain in effect until the Court orders otherwise.
During its last session, the legislature failed to pass a school finance package, leaving districts in limbo for financial planning for the 2004-2005 school year.
Vratil said rising above party politics and inter-house hitches would be key in reaching a school finance solution.
"It's always a challenge for both houses of the legislature to work together," he said. "We need to work together to come up with a solution for the benefit of all school children. This is not something that should get bogged down in politics or anything like that -- this is not a partisan issue."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said legislators should use the upcoming session to ensure their constitutional obligation is met.
"They have been given 100 days to meet their obligation, and I urge them to do so thoughtfully, carefully, and expeditiously for the sake of our children, our economy and future prosperity," she said in a statement. "Continued uncertainty puts our schools at risk and harms our economy."
Contributing: Elvyn J. Jones