Archive for Thursday, August 3, 2006

School finance decision doesn’t favor USD 232

August 3, 2006

Perhaps the best thing about the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling Friday on school finance is that it was made. With the ruling to dismiss the lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the state's school finance law, Kansas school administrators can finish budgets, hire what additional staff they can afford and state lawmakers can finish their summers, which for many includes a last week of campaigning, without fear of an emergency stay in Topeka.

A word often associated with the Court's decision was closure, and it did indeed end the seven-year lawsuit. In the 4-2 ruling, justices state they dismissed the lawsuit because the Legislature's action in the spring 2006 session basically rewrote school finance law, hence the law challenging the 1992 school finance law was moot. With that, the Court invited another lawsuit challenging the distribution of the current formula, somewhat undermining the talk of closure.

The attorney for the school districts that brought the lawsuit to state courts in 1999 said he was happy with what the litigation accomplished. And it is indeed very probable that without court orders the past two years the Legislature wouldn't have acted to provide $290 million in additional state aid to schools for the last school year or the $194.5 million in added money it approved this spring for the 2006-2007 school year. The lawmakers' commitment in this year's legislation to add about $271 million more in funding the next two sessions will now be tested.

Unfortunately, De Soto USD 232 didn't fare well under this spring's school finance legislation. It addressed the need of more funding for districts with large at-risk student enrollments and made concessions to large Johnson County school districts wanting added authority for local taxation.

The Court was the advocate of the first of those funding priorities, and the large districts had enough friends in the Legislature. Increased LOBs are favored in large Johnson County districts with large and diverse tax bases.

De Soto will be getting about $800,000 in added state money this year. In addition, the state allowed districts to increase mill levy authority to support local option budgets from a revenue total equaling 27 percent of the general fund money they receive from the state to 30 percent. That added authority should equal about another one mill on district property owners tax bills.

Although he voted with the majority, Justice Eric Rosen questioned the reliance on LOBs to help the state reach its constitutional obligation to adequately fund education. Because the local district is forced to increase to the maximum allowable LOB to be eligible for such goodies as its extraordinary growth levy and added state money for students in new classrooms, taxpayers in De Soto should agree.

As the ruling was being announced, Justice Kay McFarland said there were no winners or losers. Maybe, but some districts with political clout or the Court's advocacy clearly won more than others.

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