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Archive for Saturday, April 30, 2005

Rift widens between attorneys for board, state in schools case

April 30, 2005

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— A disagreement between attorneys for the state and the State Board of Education widened Friday with the filing of new documents in school finance litigation before the Kansas Supreme Court.

Lawyers for the state, hired by Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, asked the court to disregard criticism from the board's attorney, Dan Biles, over a $142 million school finance package legislators approved to improve funding.

In a brief he filed this week, Biles criticized parts of the plan giving school districts new authority to raise local property taxes. He also told the plan should be viewed as "an interim step."

On Friday, the state's attorneys asked the court to limit what Biles can say during a May 11 hearing, or take time for his arguments from the hour allotted to attorneys for the Dodge City and Salina school districts, who sued the state and the board in 1999.

"It seems to be an interesting bit of energy to expend to try to quash dissent," Biles said.

The latest filing was another sign that Biles' actions upset supporters of the Legislature's plan.

"Clearly, therefore, the state board intends to make absolutely no effort to carry the burden of persuasion on HB 2247 but, quite the contrary, intends to assist the plaintiffs in persuading this court that HB 2247 is not constitutional," attorney Kenneth Weltz wrote the court, referring to the legislation containing the plan.

The filing came hours after Kline assured reporters that any disagreement between Biles and his hired attorneys had been overstated by news organizations. Kline described the board's position as "a limited deviation" from the state's stance.

"I know it's been played up bigger in the press," Kline said. "Basically, the state board agreed with our brief, with the exception as it relates to those changes that allow for greater local investment."

Lawmakers before court

Earlier in the day, the Legislative Coordinating Council voted to file a request with the court, seeking permission for Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, and Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, to speak during the May 11 hearing. The two legislators, both of whom played a key role in drafting the legislative package, would answer questions from justices about the plan and explain legislative intent.

"This is not an ordinary case," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "I'm not sure the full import has been impressed upon the court in oral arguments."

The Legislature isn't named as a defendant in the case, only the state and the State Board of Education. Kline has hired outside attorneys from the Kansas City-area firm of Lathrop and Gage to argue for the state.

Kline said it's appropriate for legislators to have their own representation.

"We've not represented the Legislature," Kline said during a news conference. "We've represented the people of Kansas."

Democratic leaders objected to having legislators speak on their behalf, questioning whether the two would accurately reflect the opposition to many of the components of the package, which relies on existing state revenues.

In his brief, Biles raised questions about the lack of a steady funding source for the package, noting that the decision to increase spending wasn't based on actual costs to improve student achievement toward state and national goals. He also said that the provisions to allow some districts to increase their local property taxes was unfair to poor districts, which can't raise additional money easily.

Kline said the local property tax provisions actually close the spending gaps between districts.

Biles was criticized by some state board members who considered the tone of his brief too negative. The board called a special meeting for Sunday in Topeka to discuss the matter privately with Biles.

Kline said he wasn't privy to the board's internal discussions.

"I think Mr. Biles is doing the job he was hired to do, and he's a good attorney," Kline told reporters. "Mr. Biles has been very good to work with."

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