Archive for Saturday, December 20, 2003

Appeal of school ruling rejected

Judge admonishes education officials that case ‘is about our children’

December 20, 2003


— A judge Friday rejected a request from state education officials to allow them to appeal his finding that the school finance system is unconstitutional.

"JUST GO FIX IT!" Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock wrote in his order, which included a stinging rebuke of legal and political attempts to get around his ruling.

Dan Biles, an attorney representing the State Board of Education, laughed when told of Bullock's response. "In effect, nothing is going to happen with this case until this summer," Biles said, adding that he expected the rejection.

On Dec. 2, Bullock issued a preliminary order finding blatant violations of the state and federal constitutions in Kansas' method of funding public schools. He ruled the level of school funding was inadequate and the method of distributing those funds discriminated against minority students.

Bullock gave Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the Legislature until July 1 to correct the system.

Biles had asked Bullock to allow the Board of Education to appeal that preliminary order to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Getting a state Supreme Court ruling, Biles argued, would resolve the case sooner because the state wouldn't have to wait until July 1 to appeal Bullock's order.

In Friday's order, Bullock called that argument "patently disingenuous."

'About our children'

The timeline he outlined gives lawmakers time to make changes in the next legislative session, Bullock said, instead of waiting for a Supreme Court decision and then addressing those issues. Such a process, he wrote, could draw out a final solution until 2007.

"With more than 437,000 students presently enrolled in Kansas schools, imagine how many thousands more Kansas children will be cast upon the dust heap of history by a State Board of Education and a Commissioner of Education who wish to delay for at least four more years (beyond the nearly five years this case has already pended) the fulfillment of the constitutional duty to provide our children their educational due," Bullock wrote.

And he said it was "hypocritical" for the state board to seek an appeal because it had for years decried the lack of funding for schools and urged implementation of recommendations contained in a consultant's report -- the same report Bullock used as the basis of his order. Using figures in the report from Augenblick & Myer, Bullock has said the state needed to increase school funding by about $1 billion.

In his Dec. 2 order and again Friday, the judge criticized the state for allowing huge gaps in achievement between white and minority students, and for shortchanging schools that are predominantly minority. Per-pupil spending from district to district has a variance of 300 percent, he said, and reiterated his contention that the level of school funding was based simply on politics, not a real analysis of the costs.

"As this Court has previously observed, this case is not about the Legislature, it is not about the Governor, it is not about the Court, it is not about the State School Board, it is not about school districts, counties, cities, or towns. It is about our children!" Bullock wrote.

'Extremely hopeful'

The lawsuit before Bullock was filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina school districts, who argued the state's $2.6 billion in aid to education was inadequate.

Alan Rupe, the attorney who represented the plaintiff students, said he was pleased with Bullock's decision and hoped Sebelius and the Legislature would make the corrections needed to satisfy Bullock's order.

"I am extremely hopeful that the governor, who was elected on a plank of being the education candidate, can push aside all the politics and lead the way for the kids of Kansas," he said. "I'm hopeful, but I ... know that that is not likely to happen."

Sebelius has said more money was needed for schools, but has refused to talk about her plans.

In a recent interview with the Journal-World, Sebelius said that when the legislative session starts Jan. 12, "I'll have a very specific proposal to put on the table. I think that's the starting point."

Republican and Democratic legislators from Lawrence said they hoped Sebelius would propose a tax increase for education because the current amount of revenue available for schools is not enough to improve the system.

"I think Judge Bullock is saying we can't stall any more," said Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence. "We are going to have to do something to show that we are moving in the right direction to provide the level of education that our students deserve."

She said if a tax increase were proposed by Sebelius, it would have a better chance of being approved by the Legislature.

"If it's in the governor's budget, then what I have observed is we try and meet it," Ballard said.

"The governor has got to be out in front," said Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence. "Objectively most citizens and most legislators recognize there is a problem, and that education from kindergarten through KU is underfunded," he said.

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