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Archive for Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Negotiators strike deal on school funding

July 6, 2005

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— House and Senate negotiators agreed today on a $148.4 million education funding package aimed at ensuring public schools open in August and satisfying a Kansas Supreme Court mandate.

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House and Senate negotiators agreed today on a $148.4 million education funding package aimed at ensuring public schools open in August and satisfying a Kansas Supreme Court mandate.

Negotiators struck the deal after legislators returned from an extended Fourth of July holiday. The agreement came only two days before a Friday hearing scheduled by the court to hear arguments on why nearly $3 billion in state funds shouldn't be withheld from the state's 300 school districts.

The package comes with no strings attached, meaning House members gave up on trying to tie it to passage of constitutional changes to limit judicial power or to delay the distribution of the money. If approved by legislators Wednesday night, the money would be available to schools for their 2005-06 academic year.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf said the agreement was similar to what her chamber proposed Saturday, when legislators abruptly left the Statehouse. She expected the package would win approval and satisfy the court.

"Hopefully, we will be able to finish this problem and end the special session," said Schodorf, R-Wichita. "This best thing is, we have a clean bill to fund schools."

Passage in the House will depend on support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Kathe Decker said most conservatives were still opposed to any funding increases and wanted to punish the court - especially because the court announced Saturday that it would consider keeping schools closed to compel legislative obedience.

"After the court said what it did, many felt that we should address closing schools," said Decker, R-Clay Center, the lead negotiator. "Schools should not be held from being open because we are quibbling over dollars. That's why we believe the constitutional amendment is important."

She acknowledged many House members were "disappointed" that negotiators gave up on a constitutional amendment but added, "You can only have a standoff for so long."

Decker and other House negotiators also backed off insisting that additional funding be delayed until early 2006 and that one provision declare that if the court struck down any part, the entire package would be void.

Senators had objected to both items, something Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, called "amazing."

Without the all-or-nothing clause to bind the justices, O'Neal said, "It's a tacit admission that they can do anything. If that's the case, we should abdicate and put the court in control of future education decisions."

The Supreme Court has said shutting off school funding would be a "traditional" remedy, but it could keep 445,000 students and 64,000 teachers and support staff out of classrooms this fall.

In New Jersey in 1976, the state's highest court ordered schools to remain closed, successfully forcing legislators to improve funding. Threats from high courts in Arizona and Texas compelled legislators in those states to do the same.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius traveled Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, participating in three dozen events across the state. She said she talked to about 2,000 Kansans and heard a consistent message that legislators need to increase spending on schools and wrap up their special session.

"They want them to step and fund good schools in every community, and they want them to do it quickly," Sebelius said during a news conference. "They think it's the legislators' job to come to Topeka today, pass a school finance bill and come back home."

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