Topeka — In a dispute over school funding, the Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday sided with Johnson County by refusing to stop a local sales tax levy that has pumped millions of dollars into public schools there.
The court ordered the case back to Johnson County District Court -- which initially declined to issue a preliminary injunction -- and said it should consider whether the sales tax places Bonner Springs and other schools in Wyandotte County at a disadvantage in their ability to provide a quality education.
Both Atty. Gen. Phill Kline and Johnson County officials praised the decision.
"Today's ruling reinforces our position that the Kansas Constitution allows local communities to direct additional funds to education," Kline said.
"We were happy with it," said Larry McAulay, director of legal services for Johnson County. "We thought it generally followed what our position was on the case."
Wyandotte County school officials who challenged the Johnson County tax said they would have no comment until Monday because they were analyzing the ruling.
Advocates of equal school funding warned not to read too much into the appeals court decision, noting that the three-judge panel punted on a major question. They added that the real battle over school funding would be later this month when the Kansas Supreme Court hears arguments in a challenge of the entire state's school finance method.
"Neither side can claim victory over this decision," said Alan Rupe, an attorney representing poor districts in the state Supreme Court case.
The dispute in Friday's ruling was over a quarter-cent sales tax increase in Johnson County to fund schools as an economic development tool.
Facing cuts in state funding for public schools, the measure was approved by Johnson County voters in November 2002 and expected to produce $42 million over three years. The legal challenge was filed in March 2003.
Under state law, counties can levy taxes for economic development. Attorneys for Johnson County school districts argued that every county is permitted to give funds to schools to improve the economic climate, if voters approve. The sales tax, they argued, would maintain the county's reputation for good schools and further efforts to land new businesses.
But school districts in neighboring Wyandotte County filed a lawsuit challenging the levy, saying the enhanced local funds would put their students at a competitive disadvantage, both in teacher salaries and support of academic programs. They said the Kansas Constitution requires that all students have access to an equal education.
The district sought a court-ordered halt to distributing revenues from the sales tax until the lawsuit could be decided. Johnson County District Court refused to issue that order. That decision was upheld Friday by the Kansas Court of Appeals.
No harm shown
The appeals court said Wyandotte County failed to show it would be harmed by the sales tax in the neighboring county.
But the appellate court didn't rule on whether the sales tax was unfair to Wyandotte County students, sending that question back to the lower court.
The appellate court said the Kansas Supreme Court has allowed disparities in school funding, but noted the final word on the matter would again be made by the state Supreme Court under the most recent challenge to the statewide method of distributing $2.7 billion in state school funds. Arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court in that case are set for Aug. 30.
In the statewide case, Shawnee County District Court Judge Terry Bullock has ruled that current disparities in school funding are unconstitutional because they discriminate against minorities and other students.
Rupe said the Johnson County sales tax situation was a part of that problem because it meant more affluent communities could provide more school funding.
"Unchecked it could end up being terribly unequal," he said. "However, if there is a method of when there is tax of that nature to equalize it and make it part of the state system, then it wouldn't be bad."
The Johnson County sales tax prompted Douglas County officials, frustrated with inadequate school funding from the state, to ask the Legislature earlier this year to OK a bill that would have allowed county residents to vote on a sales tax increase for public schools.
But with the statewide school finance lawsuit looming, the proposal got little support, with opponents saying it would be unfair to counties whose residents couldn't afford to increase their local taxes. The measure was killed in the Senate.