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Archive for Thursday, October 24, 2002

Justices consider reinstating school lawsuit

October 24, 2002

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Students, parents and administrators in the Salina and Dodge City school districts want a chance to argue in court that the state doesn't spend enough money on education.

Their attorney on Wednesday asked the Kansas Supreme Court to give them that chance.

But an attorney representing the state told the justices that those critics of the 1992 school finance law hadn't raised any new legal issues for the court to consider.

The students, parents and two districts sued the state in 1999. They allege that the state doesn't provide enough money for its elementary, junior high and high schools and unfairly distributes the dollars it does provide.

Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock dismissed the lawsuit in November 2001. The plaintiffs want the Supreme Court to reinstate the lawsuit. The justices could rule as early as Dec. 6.

"These plaintiffs want their day in court," said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing the districts, students and parents. "We'd like the opportunity to try this case."

Dan Biles, an Overland Park attorney representing the state, said the justices already tackled the same legal issues in a 1994 ruling in which they upheld the constitutionality of the school finance law.

"It's exactly the same case," he told the justices.

The state expects to spend about $2.3 billion under its current budget on aid to public schools, or $3,867 per student.

Education officials argue the amount isn't adequate; a legislative study released in May suggested the state need to spend $4,650 per student to provide a suitable education across the state another $450 million a year.

Critics also suggest the formula doesn't distribute the money fairly. Rupe contends that the distribution is so seriously flawed that minority students in larger districts are being penalized.

The Salina and Dodge City districts and their students and parents raised the issue of discrimination against minorities in a separate lawsuit that is pending in U.S. District Court in Wichita.

In presiding over the case, Bullock allowed the parties to gather evidence for nearly two years before dismissing the lawsuit on the eve of trial. Rupe said he still had requests for state documents and 14 depositions pending when Bullock made his decision.

"Judge Bullock dismissed the case on his own initiative," Rupe said.

Biles said Bullock dismissed the case after reviewing pretrial questionnaires submitted by both sides and that the state raised the issue of whether the case should be permitted to go to trial.

Several justices questioned Biles about the timing of Bullock's dismissal, expressing concern that the judge's ruling came after he allowed the parties to gather evidence, rather than before.

In questioning Biles, Justice Tyler Lockett picked up on Rupe's argument that the plaintiffs should be allowed to have their evidence heard.

He said to Biles, "What you're saying is, "Trust us."'

Biles replied: "I don't think we're trying to say that, judge."

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