Topeka — Facing a looming Kansas Supreme Court deadline for fixing the state's public school finance system, House Speaker Doug Mays predicted Friday that the Republican controlled Legislature would fail to find a satisfactory solution this session.
Critics immediately criticized the speaker's comments; they said it showed lawmakers were dragging their heels.
But Mays, R-Topeka, said the Legislature would make a "good-faith effort," and he hopes the court will agree the Legislature needs time to determine what the correct funding formula should be.
Mays said he wanted to form an independent panel to study the actual cost of education and provide its findings for the 2006 Legislature.
"The data is there. We just have to get it, and you can't get it by the end of the session," Mays said.
His comments brought a sharp rebuke from Democrats, educators and advocates for the school districts whose lawsuit prompted the judicial ruling.
"It is absolutely incredible, irresponsible, and just flat bull-headed," said Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the plaintiff schools.
In January, the state Supreme Court said the Legislature had failed its constitutional responsibility to provide suitable funding for schools. It said more funding was needed and the Legislature must reconsider how it distributed dollars for at-risk, bilingual and special education students by April 12.
|¢ House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, indicated the Legislature may not be able to adequately address the school finance issue this session.¢ Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Mays said both chambers would reveal plans next week.¢ Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other Democratic leaders criticized the Republicans for delaying the issue.|
Many supporters of public schools have said a tax increase was needed to meet the court's order.
But Mays has said the $2.7 billion state funding system could be overhauled without a tax increase.
On Friday, Mays and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said each chamber was preparing school-finance legislation.
Mays said the House plan would increase funding through existing tax collections, which are growing as the economy improves, and adjustments in other areas of the budget.
He said the plan would include increases for students with limited English speaking skills and at-risk students, though final figures had not been worked out yet.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who proposed a tax increase for schools last year, noted that Mays led the charge to kill that effort because he said then that the Legislature had to wait for the Kansas Supreme Court's opinion on the issue.
"The time has come to go to work," Sebelius, a Democrat, said. "Failing to work hard on this difficult issue means that some legislators have abdicated their most important responsibility as public servants."
Democratic legislators offered similar remarks.
"It's time for us to move ahead," House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg said.
He said if the Kansas Supreme Court wasn't satisfied with the Legislature's action in April it could enforce a lower court order to shut down schools.
Senate Democrat Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said there was no need to further study education costs.
"How many studies do we have to do?" he asked.
A 2001 study commissioned by the Legislature said the state was shorting schools by approximately $1 billion. That study cost $250,000.
Last week, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis released a survey of 55 school districts representing all categories of sizes that indicated the state was under-funding schools by several hundred million dollars yearly.
Mays has always criticized the 2001 study, and on Friday he said the survey conducted by Dennis was based on cost opinions from educators.
"We want facts, not opinions," he said.
Mays proposed an independent group working with state auditors to review school funding and come up with an estimate on the actual cost of education.
"This is not a 1,000-piece puzzle. It's a 10,000-piece puzzle," he said.
Later, Mays said Republicans would work hard to satisfy the court. "We are going to make every effort to meet the court's requirements this session." But, he added, he didn't expect the court to close the case.
Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said Mays was trying to avoid responsibility.
"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It is the same set of dodging and rhetoric we've heard for the last five years," Weseman said.
On the Senate side, Morris said education leaders there would roll out a school finance proposal next week.
Morris said it would be a three-year plan, and the first year would provide more funding without requiring a tax increase.
While not endorsing the proposal, Sebelius praised the Senate for moving ahead on the issue.
Meanwhile, Rupe said the Legislature must act as quickly as possible to meet the court order.
"Every year that goes by, we lose an entire class of kids who have graduated or dropped out of our schools without an adequate education," he said.