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Archive for Thursday, November 22, 2001

Judge upholds school funding policy

System may have discrepancies but isn’t unconstitutional, ruling holds

November 22, 2001

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A day before Thanksgiving, a judge gave state officials a reason to be thankful by upholding Kansas' method of financing public schools.

But advocates for school funding reform said the decision Wednesday would shortchange thousands of students, leaving them with crumbs from the school finance pie.

In dispute was the state's method of divvying up about $2.9 billion annually to public schools.

A lawsuit brought by 14 mid-sized school districts said the funding formula discriminated against minority students and students with disabilities.

Those districts said the funding law provides extra funds to smaller, mostly white school districts and allows large, wealthy and mostly white school districts access to more local tax revenue to supplement education costs.

The lawsuit filed in 1999 by the districts was set to go to trial Dec. 3 in Topeka.

But District Court Judge Terry Bullock of Topeka issued an order rejecting the legal challenge. Although funding disparities exist, Bullock said that didn't mean the school finance system was unconstitutional.

'It's not over'

Attorney Alan Rupe of Wichita, representing the school districts, called Bullock's decision a setback but said it would improve the legal challenge in federal court, where the issue is being contested in a similar lawsuit.

"It enhances our arguments in the federal court case the state has turned its back on the problem. It underscores the need for the federal court litigation," Rupe said. "It's not over until it's over."

In the federal lawsuit, a judge has ruled the state can be sued in U.S. District Court over the school funding issue. The state has appealed, and both sides were scheduled to make oral arguments Sept. 11 before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The terrorist attack that day forced postponement until Jan. 17.

Concerning Bullock's decision, Rupe said he and the school districts will decide soon whether to appeal.

Gary Norris, superintendent in the Salina district that is among those leading the lawsuits, said he was disappointed by Bullock's decision.

"It's a travesty. He wouldn't even allow the matter to go to trial. We believed we were going to be able to prove our case," Norris said.

Norris said the finance system produces funding inequities to the extent that some school districts receive twice as much per student as other districts.

Those low-funded school districts will continue to suffer, he said, because they will be unable to compete with districts that can spend more on instruction and teacher salaries.

State officials pleased

But state officials said they were pleased by Bullock's ruling. A decision against the state would have loomed large over the next session of the Legislature, which starts Jan. 14.

Lawmakers will be facing a budget deficit in an election year, and public school funding makes up nearly two-thirds of the state budget.

Gov. Bill Graves' office called the ruling a victory. "At least the framework we have in place is appropriate," Graves' spokesman Don Brown said.

Brown disagreed that the court ruling took pressure off the Legislature to improve school funding. "They are two entirely separate issues. Maybe now it's easier to push forward with additional commitment to education," he said. Graves has pushed unsuccessfully for a tax increase for public schools.

Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, said the legal challenge was "flimsy" and criticized the plaintiff school districts, saying they were wasting money in court that could have been spent on educating children. "I don't know why they keep listening to those attorneys," he said.

Kerr said there are components of the school finance system, such as funding for at-risk students, that provide funds for students that the plaintiffs alleged were being shortchanged.

And, he said, if there are flaws in the school finance system, they can be corrected because the law is "flexible."

Rupe disagreed with Kerr. "The fact is school finance in Kansas is at an inadequate level and hurts the minorities, the disadvantaged and disabled more than anyone else," he said.

The Lawrence school district is not part of the lawsuit, although Tom Christie, executive director of educational programming, said he believed a successful challenge of the finance method would probably benefit the school district.

"It will be interesting to see how the judges rule in the federal lawsuit," he said.

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