Archive for Thursday, August 3, 2006

Zoellner relieved lawsuit resolved

August 3, 2006

De Soto USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said she's grateful for the closure provided by Friday's Kansas Supreme Court ruling.

"As of today, it provides closure for us getting our budget ready," she said. "That's a positive thing from our perspective."

The ruling dismissed the school finance lawsuit, originally called Montoy vs. State, that has been going through the Kansas court system since 2001. The lawsuit alleged the state method for funding Kansas schools unconstitutionally distributed funds between districts. After being ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with a new funding plan last year, the Legislature agreed to a one-year plan for 2005-2006.

The 2006 Legislature gave additional funding for schools for the next three years.

The plaintiffs in the case, however, argued that these plans still did not provide enough funding for Kansas schools to meet state and federal education requirements.

In a 4-2 decision, the Kansas high court voted to dismiss the case.

School districts across the state received their budget paperwork from the State Department of Education last week, which will allow them to begin the planning process. An Aug. 25 deadline to approve budgets doesn't leave them much time, however.

In USD 232, teacher negotiations have also been on hold until administrators know how much money they'll get from the state.

Zoellner said the district would need further analysis to find out what the ruling means for De Soto. In the first year, the district was already planned to lose about $800,000 with the 2006 school finance plan -- but that's because they're not getting funding for new buildings that they received in 2004 and 2005. The loss of funds doesn't have anything to do with the Kansas Supreme Court ruling or Senate Bill 549, Zoellner said.

The majority ruling of the Kansas Supreme Court did not say whether Senate Bill 549 was constitutional. Instead, the opinion stated that the plan is separate than the one presented to the court in 2001, and a new lawsuit would have to be filed to evaluate the Legislature's 2006 school finance plan.

"... the legislature materially and fundamentally changed the way K-12 is funded in this state," the majority opinion read. "... the school finance formula challenged by the plaintiffs no longer exists, and thus, the case is moot."

The 2006 school finance plan allows districts across the state to increase the local option budget from 27 percent of each district's individual general fund to 30 percent of the general fund. The total 2006-2007 funding plan would bring about $1.2 million to De Soto.

Kathy Cook, executive director of the Shawnee-based Kansas Families United for Public Education, said Friday's ruling was a disappointment.

"I think the thing that's most disappointing is that they aren't watching over the Legislature," Cook said. "So we have no idea if those promises in years two and three (of the 2006 school finance plan) will be fulfilled, since they haven't kept their promises to kids in the past."

Cook said her organization would support any group that decided to bring another lawsuit to evaluate the constitutionality of the 2006 school finance plan.

"We have to have a system that's fair for Johnson County and fair for Wyandotte County," she said. "I wouldn't feel right about my kid having a good education if my neighbors across the county line weren't entitled to the same thing."

Cook also said the ruling was an example of why voters should make sure candidates in Tuesday's primary elections really do represent their wishes. She said legislators who say the new school finance plan will bankrupt the state in three years aren't being honest.

"They're the same legislators who said there wouldn't be enough to fund year one," she said. "They oppose everything that equates to economic growth. Moderate voters need to get out there and elect moderate candidates."

Kansas Families United for Public Education also has a political action group that endorses candidates.

Sen. Kay O'Connor, who represents De Soto in the Kansas Senate, voted against Senate Bill 549. In a June interview, she said the school finance plan gives too much money to schools and the plan would indeed bankrupt the Kansas budget in year three. She supports a school voucher program to give parents control over how their dollars will support schools.

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline issued a statement Friday supporting the ruling and the increased local option budget authority it gives local school districts.

"The decision today restores the appropriate accountability and authority for school funding decisions to the governor, Legislature and local school boards," Kline said. "Such accountability is integral to the democratic process. I am also pleased that the Court belatedly recognized that Kansas parents have the right to invest locally in education and that our constitution promotes and supports local control of schools."

USD 232 officials are forecasting a 3-mill increase for the 2006-2007 school year, which will be driven in part by the increase in LOB authority. Most property owners had an increase in assessed valuation as well, which will also increase property taxes owed.

Zoellner said the 2006 school finance plan has no bearing on the district's need for new facilities and a $105.7 million bond issue that will be before voters in November.

"That part is necessary, so we can maintain the class sizes our patrons have required," Zoellner said. "The Supreme Court decision had no bearing on our continuing need to provide facilities."

Board President Don Clark said in an interview last week that if the $105.7 million bond issue to expand high schools does not pass this year, the district may be forced to build a third high school to accommodate students in upcoming years.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.