To Prevent Schools Shutdown, Kansas Legislature Will Be Back in Session

by | June 8, 2016

By Bryan Lowry

Gov. Sam Brownback will call Kansas lawmakers back to Topeka later this month in an effort to prevent the closure of the state's schools.

The Legislature faces an order from the Kansas Supreme Court to fix inequities in school funding by June 30. If lawmakers fail to do so, the court could put a hold on education funding on July 1, triggering a shutdown of the state's school districts.

"After discussion with Legislative Leadership, I have decided to call a special session to keep Kansas schools open, despite the Court's threat to close them," Brownback said in a statement Tuesday.

He has not yet set a date for the session.

Later in the day, he said he's "trying to hear what the Legislature's willing to do, because I want this to be successful."

Whether lawmakers can reach agreement on a plan to provide equitable funding for schools remains to be seen. Some wanted to defy the court order. Others, most notably from Johnson County, are concerned that their districts might lose money as the state tries to level funding.

Brownback's announcement comes as a relief for educators.

"School personnel and Kansas families need the certainty that we're going to solve this problem together and we're going to not have any disruption to Kansas schools," said Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for the Wichita school district.

John Robb, the attorney for the Wichita school district and other plaintiff districts, called the announcement a positive sign.

"I think the lawmakers have been home long enough to figure out that the people of Kansas are virtually unanimous that they don't want the schools closed," Robb said. "I hope it's a sign that the Legislature and the governor are going to fix this and not play more games."

Some Republicans said last week that the Legislature should try to fight the case in federal court rather than hold a special session.

However, public pressure has been mounting in the past week. Brownback's call for a special session comes after Democrats began an effort to collect petition signatures in order to force a special session.

Brownback said the Democrats' petition didn't have any impact on his decision to call a special session.

"Not in the least. Probably had a negative impact more than anything," Brownback said.

'On board to do it'

It will be 23rd time in the history of the state that the governor has called a special session.

Brownback held a conference call with legislative leaders on Tuesday morning before announcing his decision.

"I wanted to work with legislative leadership to make sure people were on board to do it, because these are highly unusual events for Kansas," the governor said when approached in the hall later that day.

Paje Resner, spokeswoman for Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, called it a joint decision.

Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, said holding a special session is "definitely much better than creating a constitutional crisis."

Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board who is seeking a seat in the Kansas Senate, told a crowd of about 200 people at a rally at North High School that he was thankful the governor will call a session but that "we need him to set the date, and the sooner the better."

"We need the Sedgwick County delegation, those who represent us in Topeka, to go back to Topeka and do their job as quickly as possible. ... We really need them to represent our kids and our communities," said Rogers, a Democrat.

Brownback said he and legislative leaders would settle on a date soon but that he made the announcement Tuesday because he "wanted to get it out there now that we're going to it."

He said he wanted to address the ruling last week when the Legislature met for the official end of its session but that the time frame was too short for such a complex issue.

Amendment idea

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget committee chairman, had pushed for a special session despite his objections to the court's ruling.

"It is now up to us to pass yet another bill that distributes over $4 billion to make sure that our kids and teachers' lives aren't disrupted by litigation," Ryckman said. "We need to remove our kids from this ever happening again. They should not be involved in a political dispute between two branches of government."

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of passing a constitutional amendment -- which would require a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers and approval of a majority of Kansas voters -- to explicitly forbid courts from closing schools in the future.

Asked about that, Ryckman said, "We need to look at all options that make it so our kids won't be pawns or collateral damage in this dispute."

Tax component

Brownback said he would "do everything I can to keep this session focused on education."

Kuether said lawmakers need to tackle both school finance and taxes, two issues that she says are intertwined.

"Well, we don't have any money, so we've got to come up with money somewhere if we're going to make the courts happy," she said. "I mean, if we're going to come back and be responsible, that's exactly what we need to do."

The state missed revenue estimates by nearly $75 million last month and faces a shortfall for the current budget year that needs to be resolved by June 30.

Complying with the court order could cost $38 million if lawmakers decide to restore the state's old equalization formula, one option the court identified as a "safe harbor" for lawmakers.

"Clearly, it is the simplest and most direct way to do it at least for this year," said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. "I don't think that we've seen an alternative. The alternative that they considered was rejected by the court."

Tallman said it may be difficult to pay for this without raising new revenue but said that "to get an agreement on what type of revenue might compound the problem."

Lawmakers struggled to find agreement on tax policy last year, and the session stretched on for a record 114 days. Few lawmakers are eager to renew the tax debate in an election year.

Redistribution

Another thorny issue will be whether a funding bill takes money from wealthy districts to redistribute it to poorer ones. Johnson County lawmakers, in particular, object to the idea.

"My No. 1 priority will be to protect the Johnson County schools," said Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park. "I've got three school districts ... Shawnee Mission will lose about $1.5 million, Olathe will lose almost $1 million and De Soto lose almost $300,000 if we go back to the old formula."

Smith said he would not vote for any bill that does not hold those school districts harmless.

Including a hold-harmless provision would potentially make the cost of the bill more than $50 million, said Robb, who added that doing that might undermine the goal of leveling funding among districts.

"The whole purpose for equalization is to equalize between wealthy districts and poor districts, so when you add a 'hold harmless,' it doesn't equalize to the wealthy districts," Robb said.

"Now, we didn't see this cry from Wichita legislators when the block grant cut money from Wichita, but all of a sudden we see this huge cry if Shawnee Mission is going to lose a dime," he said. "I think equalization is just that, and to equalize, there's going to be some cuts, so I think a 'hold harmless' is a bad idea. I don't think the court's going to buy it."

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