Districts Try to Block Kansas' School Funding Law

by | March 30, 2015

By Bryan Lowry

Lawyers representing Wichita and 47 other Kansas school districts petitioned a court Thursday to block a new school finance law signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

The governor signed SB 7 on Wednesday. It repeals the state's 23-year-old school finance system and sets up block-grant funding for the next two years.

The bill restores a $28 million statewide cut to schools that went into effect earlier this month, but it also reduces equalization aid, which goes toward closing gaps between districts, by $51 million. That means that districts such as Wichita will face a cut to current-year funding while others, such as Burlington, will not.

"The Constitution requires equity and adequacy," said John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding. "So we're asking that Senate Bill 7 be stayed both temporarily and permanently because it does not meet the equity part of the Kansas Constitution."

In addition to Wichita, the coalition of school districts represented by Schools for Fair Funding includes Haysville, Valley Center and Goddard.

The petition, which was filed with Shawnee County District Court, quotes a March 18 editorial from The Eagle that called the bill "a model of poor lawmaking." The bill was passed by the Legislature 11 days after it was introduced.

The plaintiffs asked the court to stay implementation of the law at least until May 7, when a hearing is scheduled in the districts' still-pending lawsuit against the state regarding school funding.

The petition also asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the new law unless it can prove that the new legislation meets the Kansas Supreme Court's 2014 order to address funding gaps between districts.

"Locking in lower funding levels...will exacerbate those problems that have already been caused by the State's failure to fully fund education," the petition states.

While the bill reduces overall funding for the current year, supporters say the shift to flexible block grants will direct more money to classrooms, compared with the finance formula that designates state dollars for specific purposes, such as transportation or bilingual education.

The court hinted that it might act to intervene and preserve the status quo after the Kansas House passed the block grant legislation two weeks ago.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, an attorney who defended the state in a previous school-finance case, said he hoped the court would give fair consideration to the block grant formula. "I would be gravely concerned if this formula doesn't get the thorough chance to stand up to the light of day," he said.

The newly signed legislation would go into effect upon publication in the Kansas Register. The court has added the state's treasurer, who oversees payments to schools, as a plaintiff to the case. The court initially suggested adding the revisor of statutes, who oversees the publication of laws, but later retracted that, Robb said.

King questioned the plaintiffs' petition to maintain the current funding system while they are suing the state over funding levels.

"I'm a little puzzled by the relief the plaintiffs seem to be requesting here...the action that they're taking in this case seems to be to ask the court to apply the old formula at the same time they're calling the old formula unconstitutional," King said.

"They didn't like the old formula. And now that we've changed it, they don't like the new formula either...Whatever the Legislature does in this case doesn't seem to satisfy the plaintiffs," he said.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said in a statement that he was not surprised that "the Constitutionality of the Governor's school finance plan is being challenged."

"Last year the courts ordered the state to adequately fund public education; the Governor's plan not only fails to comply, but appears intent on sidestepping the ruling altogether," Burroughs said.

The governor's office would not comment on the court filing, deferring all questions to the attorney general's office.

"We will continue to defend the school finance law as written, and now rewritten, by the people of Kansas, through their elected representatives," said Jennifer Rapp, spokeswoman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt. "We will make our defense in the courts."

In a statement released Wednesday evening, Brownback called the block grants a "critical first step in developing a new formula that recognizes the high quality of Kansas schools and provides a stable source of funding that makes them great for generations of Kansas students to come."

"Together we will build on our past success and not jeopardize funding because of flaws in the previous formula," the governor said.

The Legislature passed a bill last year to address a Supreme Court ruling that school funding was inequitable. The bill, initially estimated to cost about $130 million, ended up costing nearly $200 million because of the dynamic nature of the school-finance formula.

This helped spark the push to move to block grants, which would lock in set costs. Brownback touted the policy in his State of State address as a temporary resolution to the fight over school funding, while also giving lawmakers time to craft a new formula.

(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)