Archive for Thursday, June 9, 2005

Justices challenge solons

Legislators at odds with Court’s school finance decision

June 9, 2005

Depending on who you ask, Friday's Supreme Court ruling in the state school finance case is either good, bad or just plain ugly.

The Court's opinion, regarded by the De Soto USD 232 administrators as a good start toward improving its financial situation, was disappointing for Johnson County's largest district and downright enraging for at least one De Soto representative.

The Court rejected House Bill 2247, saying the legislation -- which recommended increasing state funds by $142 million and allowing districts to increase local taxes by 5 percent -- was based on politics rather than a legitimate cost study and, thus, still failed to provide adequate funding for Kansas children's public education. Judges also said the bill would increase inequality among school districts.

The Court ordered the amount of state aid suggested in the bill doubled, saying lawmakers must implement a minimum increase of $285 million more than the 2004-2005 school year amount by July 1.

"It is clear that the Legislature did not consider what it costs to provide a constitutionally adequate education, nor the inequities created and worsened by H.B. 2247," justices wrote. "H.B. 2247's increased dependence on local property taxes, as decided by each school district, exacerbates disparities based on district wealth."

Still not enough

De Soto Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said the way money was distributed would determine how helpful it would be for her district, and others.

Since districts are so diverse, she said it would be more equitable for the state to allocate money as base state aid per pupil and let each district decide how to use it instead of applying stringent guidelines that wouldn't fit all.

"I believe putting money at the beginning of the formula, in the base, is going to help more districts," Zoellner said. "If we can get the base up to a reasonable amount, I think we'll all be better served."

Zoellner said any additional state money would be welcomed but that the amount ordered by the Court still wouldn't be enough to make up for years inadequate funding.

"It's still not near what we need it to be," she said.

Marjorie Kaplan, Shawnee Mission USD 512 superintendent, said her district was disappointed with the Court's decision. Shawnee Mission, a district with about 29,000 students and an abundant tax base has lobbied for years for more local control.

Monday night, De Soto Board of Education members asked Zoellner to draft a letter to the Johnson County delegation to help lawmakers understand that not all Johnson County schools had the same interests as the county's three largest districts: Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe.

Board member Sandy Thierer said she was frustrated by lawmakers assuming all of Johnson County's school districts had the same needs as the largest ones.

In its opinion, the Court wrote that districts should be able to rely on state dollars and use local money for enhancements, not the other way around.

"School districts have been forced to use the (local option budget) to supplement the State's funding as they struggle to suitably finance a constitutionally adequate education, a burden which the constitution places on the State, not on local districts," the Court said. "The result is wealth based disparity because districts with lower property valuations and median incomes are unable to generate sufficient revenue."

Legislative battle

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said a special session of the Legislature would be needed to decide how the state would comply with the Court's orders and set the date for June 22.

She admonished lawmakers for failing to produce an acceptable plan.

"Today, the Legislature's inability to fulfill its obligation to Kansas students has finally come home to roost," the governor said in a statement released Friday. "Still, I am relieved that the Legislature, after six years of wrangling, has been given another opportunity to find a real solution for funding our schools. We need to act in the best interests of Kansas children and their parents, above all else, and we cannot afford more legislative irresponsibility."

In January, following a lawsuit by several districts in western Kansas, the Court ruled that the Kansas Legislature was not allocating adequate funds to provide public school students with a suitable education, a violation of the Kansas Constitution. Legislators presented their solution to the problem in House Bill 2247, and the Court heard its most recent arguments in the case May 11.

Some legislators, however, think justices overstepped constitutional boundaries by demanding the House and Senate provide a specific amount of money.

"They were not elected by the people to appropriate the money, the Legislature was," said Sen. Kay O'Connor, an Olathe republican. "If the Legislature tries to spend more money on public schools in an attempt to fulfill the judicial instruction, then we will be setting a horrible precedent for the state of Kansas. What is next?"

O'Connor said she thought the cost study deemed acceptable by the Court and used as the basis for its opinion was limited and subjective. She also criticized the Court's unwillingness to hear arguments from legislators along with plaintiffs and defendants in the case.

"To tell us we've got to spend $142 million more dollars when they don't have any better cost basis than we do, I think that's totally inappropriate," she said.

State Rep. Anthony Brown, a Eudora Republican, also had balance-of-power concerns.

"I would question the Court's ability to appropriate money," he said. "I'm not sure how the Legislature is going to react to that.

"When they put a specific number on it, it's kind of disappointing to see that kind of activism from the Court."

Brown said he couldn't predict how the special session would play out. There were many ideas swirling around the Internet, the Eudora Republican said.

Expanded gambling, budget cuts to other programs and tax increases have been suggested as means to meet the Court mandate. Brown said it would be difficult to get a tax increase through the House, especially a 10- to 15-percent increase needed to meet the Court's demands.

"I would be reluctant to raise taxes to that extent," he said. "Right now, we have the state of Missouri lowering taxes to make that state a much more attractive place to do business."

Crunch time

O'Connor and Brown said they expected criticism but thought the Court would have accepted House Bill 2247 as a good-faith effort.

They said legislators already had implemented an additional cost of education study, expected to be ready in January, to further guide future school finance legislation.

The Court's opinion said the initial attractiveness of accepting House Bill 2247 as an interim step toward a full remedy paled in comparison to compelling arguments of children's immediate needs.

"...we cannot continue to ask current Kansas students to 'be patient,'" judges wrote. "The time for their education is now."

The Court acknowledged that districts' window of opportunity to prepare for the upcoming year was quickly closing.

"Time is running out for the school districts to prepare their budgets, staff their classrooms and offices, and begin the 2005-06 school year," the Court said. "School districts need to know what funding will be available as soon as possible."

Ken Larsen, De Soto director of budget and finance, said budget planning in his district, like others statewide, was at a standstill until details came in.

"It looks like we will have some additional monies next year, but until it's decided exactly how that will be distributed, we'll just stay on hold," he said. "It stresses all of us out."

-- Elvyn J. Jones contributed to this story

Web link

To read the Kansas Supreme Court's opinion, visit the Kansas judicial branch Web site at www.kscourts.org.

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