Archive for Saturday, July 2, 2005

Kansas Supreme Court considers closing schools

Sen. John Vratil: ‘This was the nuclear option.’

July 2, 2005


— The Kansas Supreme Court will consider keeping Kansas schools closed because legislators have failed to comply with the court's demand for additional money for public schools.

The court today issued an order telling attorneys in a pending school finance lawsuit to appear for a hearing at 9 a.m. next Friday. The justices had ordered legislators to provide an additional $143 million no later than July 1.

"Specifically, counsel should demonstrate why this court should not enter an order enjoining the expenditure and distribution of any funds for the operation of Kansas schools pending the Legislature's compliance," the court said in a two-page order signed by Chief Justice Kay McFarland.

The order was the latest development in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina, who argued the state didn't spend enough money on schools and distributed its aid unfairly.

The court ruled in January that legislators had failed to fulfill a constitutional duty to finance a suitable education for every child, then followed up with the ruling demanding additional money, issued June 3.

The court acted on the 11th day of a legislative special session called by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to answer the court's demand for more money. Some legislators wanted to approve changes in the state constitution to limit the court's power, and an impasse over that issue held up passage of an education funding bill.

The threat of the court cutting off money for schools had hung over the special session. Withholding funds would in turn keep 445,000 students and 64,000 teachers and staff from returning to the classroom when the new school year starts in August.

The court's order suggested it could even block spending on bond payments, leases and other financial obligations.

Some legislators were stunned.

"This was the nuclear option," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood. "These justices are obviously on a fast track. They're not fiddling around with procedure. They're moving full steam ahead."

Attorney General Phill Kline urged parents not to panic about the possibility that the start of the new school year would be delayed.

"This office will continue to do all within its power that is legal and responsible to ensure that schools open," he said during a news conference.

Kline noted that he was working with State Board of Education members to funnel funds already appropriated to school districts, so that their distribution can't be blocked. The board plans to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

But Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said the order gave legislators a final chance to approve a school finance bill and meet the judicial mandate.

"The key here is the court showed respect for the Legislature, and now the Legislature needs to show respect for the court," said Schmidt, R-Independence. "There's no reason to wait. We know what the choices are. We need to pass a school finance bill."

Many legislators still held out hope that the state's highest court would respond favorably if they approved an education funding bill after the midnight deadline, which the court had refused to extend.

Legislators decided early today to keep trying to broker a deal on funding schools and ending an impasse over amending the Kansas Constitution to limit the judiciary's power.

Negotiators from the House and Senate worked on a compromise, $148.5 million package, and legislative leaders hoped to debate late Saturday afternoon.

The court's order came during a break in the business of the special session, and many legislators watched as court spokesman Ron Keefover had a news conference in front of the Kansas Judicial Center, where the justices have their offices.

In its order, the court said issuing a further order would be a "traditional judicial remedy" that "clearly respects the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches."

Many Republican legislators, particularly conservatives, believed the court overstepped its constitutional authority by telling legislators exactly how much to spend on schools.

Vratil, an attorney who was involved in school finance litigation himself in the 1990s, said the court and legislators were waging a "head-butting contest."

"With each response, they seem to be upping the ante, and that's not what this case is about," Vratil said.


Baille 12 years, 10 months ago

Nobody is panicking, Phill (the AG-without-legal-understanding). We are just waiting for the legislators to get on the ball and for you to butt-out. Pinhead.

None of this crap had to happen if our esteemed legislators had done the right thing. The only one that I am personally aware of that handled this session responsibly is Tom Sloan.

blakus 12 years, 10 months ago

Bravo to the Supreme Court for upholding the State Constitution that protects the rights of its citizens. This is the wake-up call the Legislature needs. They would step beside the issue indefinitely if something drastic did not occur. If schools did not open this fall, no one would blame the court. The blame is all on the Legislature. They have had a chance to solve this issue, but for some strange reason they have not.

Richard Heckler 12 years, 10 months ago

I am a bit stunned at the backbone the court is displaying however they have 110% of my support.

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