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Archive for Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Legislators reconvene; Kline end run on schools blocked

July 6, 2005

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— Parents, teachers and students still faced the possibility that schools may not open on time in August as legislators resumed a special session on education funding.

Legislators were returning Wednesday to the Statehouse for a 12th day of work, five days after missing a July 1 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court for providing an extra $143 million for public schools. Lawmakers' failure to approve an education funding bill led the court to set a Friday hearing on withholding money from schools.

Still, legislative leaders hoped colleagues would need only a day or two to approve a school finance bill. Lawmakers quit Saturday because the House had reached an impasse.

"I'm really optimistic we'll be done in a day or two," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.

House and Senate negotiators were working on a $148.5 million package, providing an increase in aid to all schools as well as additional funds for special education and programs for helping students at risk of dropping out.

But Mays and other House Republicans continued to insist legislators must also approve a proposed constitutional amendment to limit judicial power. Such an amendment failed by 14 votes on June 26, but Mays continued to insist that it be part of any deal.

After Democrats and moderate Republicans blocked the proposal to clarify that the Legislature has a monopoly over the power to appropriate money, GOP leaders turned to a measure to prevent the courts from closing schools.

"I really don't want to be locked into a position," said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg. "But it's still pretty hard to amend the constitution on short order."

The Supreme Court has said shutting off money to schools 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.

In Kansas, Attorney General Phill Kline attempted Tuesday to do an end run around the Supreme Court, which still has pending a lawsuit filed against the state in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina.

Kline hoped to prevent the court from cutting off funds by speeding up the certification of monthly figures for how much the state's 300 school districts receive in state aid. He argued the court couldn't block the flow of money if that process already had occurred.

But the end run also required the approval of State Budget Director Duane Goossen, who works for Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and he wouldn't go along.

"We will continue to follow the law and the normal procedures," Goossen said.

And Sebelius said in a statement: "The best way to guarantee that schools remain open is for the Legislature to uphold its obligations to Kansas kids and pass a responsible school funding plan before Friday."

The State Board of Education voted 6-4 to have the amounts of state aid from August through January certified as quickly as possible. The vote mirrored the board's philosophical split, with conservatives supporting the idea and others questioning the idea's legality.

"We believe it is important to try to do something to keep schools open," said board chairman Steve Abrams of Arkansas City.

Board member Janet Waugh, of Kansas City, said, "I do not believe this is legal. I think this could backfire on us, and the backfire could hurt our kids."

Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the Dodge City and Salina parents and administrators, said he doubts Kline's maneuver would have worked because the court has many ways to cut off funds.

And, he added: "What kind of example does it set for children to have the chief law enforcement officer showing contempt for a court order and trying to get around the law? Shame on him."

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