With Schools at Risk of Closing, Kansas Lawmakers End Their Session

by | June 2, 2016

By Bryan Lowry

Lawmakers lashed out at the state Supreme Court and each other Wednesday but left Topeka without addressing the court's order to fix inequities in school funding by June 30 or risk closure of the state's schools.

And it wasn't clear when, or if, they would return before that deadline.

Some lawmakers have called for the Legislature to defy the court ruling, which could set up a constitutional crisis. Others are ready to allocate up to $40 million more in education aid to address the ruling.

In a statement late Wednesday, Gov. Sam Brownback did not call for a special session but again criticized the court, which rejected the Legislature's proposed fix on Friday.

"I will work with the Attorney General and Legislative leadership to respond aggressively and appropriately to any action taken by the Kansas Supreme Court to close our schools," Brownback said. "Kansas has great schools and they should remain open. The Courts should not be playing politics with our children's education."

And the state's fiscal constraints will complicate any attempt to meet the court order by adding funding.

During a contentious Senate GOP caucus meeting, Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, asked Senate leaders to address a rumor that the state missed May revenue estimates by a significant margin.

"We're short an awful lot of money," said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, without confirming a specific dollar amount. The Kansas Department of Revenue later announced that the state had missed May revenue estimates by $74.5 million, meaning it has a shortfall of $50 million to make up before the end of June.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said lawmakers would not be able to fix the school finance problem in a day and needed more time to study the issue.

Senate leaders halted discussion on passing any legislation after two hours of discussion.

Wednesday was sine die, Latin for "without a day," the official end to the legislative session. House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, who was ready to vote on a school finance bill, called it a missed opportunity.

"If you've got the opportunity to solve something now, why are you putting it off until special session? There's no guarantee (you solve it)," Merrick said. "We get here for special session, we're going to be here a long time ... I thought we had a pretty good plan to solve it today."

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate's budget chair, presented the plan at the Senate GOP caucus meeting, but it failed to gain traction. The proposal would have triggered additional funding for schools only in the case that the court moved forward with the threat of closure.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called the Legislature's inaction on school funding Wednesday "political malpractice," saying that thousands of children don't know whether they're going to attend school next year.

Wagle defended the decision to hold off on responding to the court ruling later on the Senate floor, noting that the ruling was released at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

"I can assure you many of our members spent that three-day weekend with family members and didn't have time to research exactly where we're at," she said.

Johnson County GOP senators issue statement on schools

Republican leaders met with the governor late Wednesday. Seven Johnson County Republican senators released a statement in the evening warning that the "court ruling is destructive to Johnson County schools."

Many Johnson County lawmakers are reluctant to approving a funding fix that could take money from their districts and send it to Wichita and other districts throughout the state.

Most of the Senate caucus meeting was spent lambasting the court's decision.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, contended that the decision was meant as a political tactic by the court's justices, five of whom are up for retention votes in the fall, to distract voters from unpopular rulings in death penalty and abortion cases.

John Robb, an attorney for the Wichita and other plaintiff school districts, called that "absolutely ridiculous."

"This is about school finance. It's been about school finance for years. The suit's been on file for six years," Robb said. "The fact that somebody is yelling 'kill the umpire' in the middle of the game, it's just crazy."

Robb called the ruling straightforward. "You just appropriate $38 million, fix equity and go home," he said.

Masterson compared this approach, reinstating and fully funding the state's old equalization formula, to paying a ransom.

Other ideas

Other lawmakers offered a series of other ideas, including filing a motion in federal court if the court closes schools in July.

Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, suggested drafting a constitutional amendment and letting voters decide whether the court should have the authority to close schools.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, noted that the court may not necessarily close schools. He said the court also has the option to lift a stay on a lower-court ruling and reinstate the old school finance formula, which lawmakers repealed last year.

That would effectively lead to an increase in school funding.

King noted that State Treasurer Ron Estes is a party to the suit, meaning the court could find Estes in contempt if he did not dole out that money.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, suggested that one way around that would be to pass a bill saying the court doesn't have the authority to hold the treasurer in contempt.

He said if the court strikes down that bill, lawmakers could secure a guarantee from the governor to pardon anyone the court holds in contempt.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, said the court would "continue dropping little turds" on the Legislature until it stands up to the court. He advocated for defying the court ruling.

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said the Legislature should have defied the court back in 2005 when it ruled school funding insufficient.

"Why do we even have a Legislature? Why don't we let the courts run the whole thing?" Ostmeyer said.

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, encouraged caution. He said lawmakers should try to comply with the court ruling and added that's what the public wants.

"What about the court of public opinion? Who wins that battle? Because we're losing it right now," Kerschen said.

(c)2016 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)