Topeka The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday approved the new school finance law, paving the way for schools to open on time next month and capping a political and legal struggle that reached fever pitch in the last few weeks.
"I'm glad to be off this roller-coaster," Lawrence school Supt. Randy Weseman said. "Now that all the legal wrangling and politics is done, we can actually get down to the business of educating kids again."
In June, the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to increase school funding because the court said the system was unconstitutionally under-funded and inequitable.
The order prompted an unprecedented standoff during a special legislative session with conservative lawmakers telling the court it had no authority to order the Legislature to make appropriations.
When the Legislature failed to meet the court's July 1 deadline, the court threatened to cut off funding to schools to try to force the lawmakers to comply. Many districts, including Lawrence, started making contingency plans for the delay of the school year.
But late Wednesday, the Legislature approved a $148.4 million spending plan to end a bitter 12-day special session.
Less than 36 hours later - Friday morning - the court heard oral arguments from attorneys involved in the case. Then the justices met in conference and delivered their opinion at 3 p.m. Court officials said the court had never before acted so swiftly.
"The present solution may not be ideal. However, it is approved for interim purposes," Chief Justice Kay McFarland said in the court's unanimous order.
State officials were relieved by the court's decision.
"Kansas kids are the real winners in the Legislature's actions to support our schools," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
"That's what today's decision means. It's great that teachers, parents and students can focus on learning, rather than wondering whether schoolhouse doors will be open in the fall," she said.
But the dispute is far from over. The court said it would retain jurisdiction in the case in order to review the Legislature's actions next year.
A study on how much it costs to fund schools so that students achieve a high range of proficiency is under way and will be completed by the start of the 2006 legislative session in January.
THE ORDER: The Kansas Supreme Court declared that the Legislature met its mandate to improve education funding with a $148.4 million school finance package. WHAT IT MEANS: The court is no longer threatening to withhold money from public schools, something that could have kept students and teachers out of classes this fall. The court's threat was designed to compel lawmakers to act.
The court has said the Legislature needs to fund schools at that level and has indicated an additional $568 million increase may be necessary.
"The real good news in this opinion, in addition to the fact that the schools will open, is the fact the court retained jurisdiction," Alan Rupe, the Wichita attorney who represents the plaintiff school districts, said.
With the court decision, the public school system will receive a $290 million increase for the coming school year - $148.4 million from the legislation just approved, and $142 million that was approved during the earlier regular legislative session.
That is the largest increase in state dollars to schools since 1992 and follows several years of flat spending as the state struggled through the post 9-11 recession. Total state spending on schools will be approximately $3 billion.
The new funding package will be paid for by higher-than-expected tax receipts from the recently rebounding economy, and by dipping into budget reserves. Most budget experts predict that without a new source of revenue, such as a tax increase or expanded gambling, the state will face a serious budget deficit next year.
But for now, education officials and politicians were glad to clear the decks for the coming school year.
"What a huge relief that this is over," Weseman said. "We've done some budget work, but when you don't know your bottom line, you just can't get it done."
Bottom line, the Lawrence district will receive about $4.3 million more for the coming school year.
And in another potential revenue increase, the court approved a part of the school finance law that will allow districts to raise their local property taxes. If that is done in Lawrence, that would mean an additional $700,000 to $800,000, Weseman said.
"It has to be carefully considered. You don't just run and do it because it's there," he said.
In June, the court had stopped the proposed local property tax option, but lifted that order Friday because in the new finance legislation, the state will kick in extra dollars to help low-wealth districts.
Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, who has criticized the court's actions in the lawsuit, said he was happy the court allowed this provision.
"I am also pleased the Court decided to return, at least partially, to its traditional position in support of local investment in education," he said. "Nothing in our Constitution limits the rights of parents to invest locally to achieve educational excellence and I will continue to fight for that right."
Rupe has argued that it is unconstitutional for wealthy districts to be able to benefit from local taxes until the state provides an adequate level of funding for all districts.
"You can't have your dessert before you eat your peas," he said.
The court did continue a legal stop to a legislative plan that would have allowed 17 school districts, including Lawrence, that have high housing costs to increase local property taxes for teacher salaries. The court has said that would worsen disparities between poor and wealthy districts.
Earlier today, attorneys argued for an hour before the court on the merits of the new legislation. Representatives on opposing sides urged the court to allow schools to open as scheduled.
Alok Ahuja, a private attorney with Lathrop & Gage who was representing the state, said, "There is no justification for this unwarranted and virtually unprecedented step of ordering school closures."
Rupe said the new funding increase was a "good-faith, first-step" effort by the state.
"There is nothing in this legislation that would cause us to stop spending and close schools," he said.
He said the final resolution of the case would be next year if the Legislature increased school funding in compliance with an education cost-study.
Dan Biles, an attorney representing the State Board of Education, urged that the court let schools know as soon as possible what it will decide.
"These districts need to know where they stand, and honestly they need to know today," he said.
THE ORDER: The Kansas Supreme Court declared that the Legislature met its mandate to improve education funding with a $148.4 million school finance package. WHAT IT MEANS: The court is no longer threatening to withhold money from public schools, something that could have kept students and teachers out of classes this fall. The court's threat was designed to compel lawmakers to act. JOB NOT DONE: A study of educational cost by legislative auditors is already in the works, and legislators will use the data in deciding on future education spending increases. STILL WATCHING: The court said it would continue to review legislators' actions on school finance. The court has previously said it could order spending increases of up to $568 million next year. COMING STORM: Because the court could require additional spending increases next year, legislators could be forced to consider raising taxes, expanding gambling or consolidating school districts. STILL ARGUING: Atty. Gen. Phill Kline says he will ask the court to reconsider part of its order blocking a provision of Kansas law, enacted this year, granting 17 districts additional authority to raise property taxes. The law is designed to compensate them for their higher-than-average housing costs.
More about school finance
- Webcast of live arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court (requires Windows Media Player)
- Brief of the Montoy suit (.pdf)
- Timeline of events in school finance lawsuit
- 6News video: School finance bill to face court
- Plaintiffs: School finance bill fails grade (06-13-06)
- State wants high court to dismiss school suit (06-02-06)
- Legislature approves school finance plan (05-10-06)
- Chat with Bob Corkins, Kansas Education Commissioner (02-02-06)
- House roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan (07-07-05)
- Supt. Weseman's contingency plan (07-06-05)
- More about school finance »
- Conference Committee on Senate Bill 549
- House bill info
- Senate bill info
- Kansas public schools cost study
- Kansas public schools cost study executive summary
- Public Education Finances 2004 (.pdf)
- Senate roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan
- Supreme Court's Show Cause Order (07-02-05)
- Supreme Court's Order Denying Extension (.pdf)
- Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)
- Supplemental Note on Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)