Topeka State Board of Education Chairman Steve Abrams on Sunday said the board stood behind its legal brief filed with the Kansas Supreme Court that says the Legislature failed to fix the school finance system.
Abrams emerged from a nearly two-hour closed-door meeting of the board and its attorney Dan Biles after complaints from Atty. Gen. Phill Kline that the board ambushed the state in legal arguments in the school finance lawsuit before the court.
With a majority of the board politically aligned with Kline, a conservative Republican, the meeting was cast as a possible "wood-shedding" of Biles for writing a brief that was too harsh of the Republican school finance plan.
The board engaged in a vigorous, private discussion, and once the meeting ended, members deferred to Abrams to comment on the proceedings.
Abrams said Biles' brief accurately reflected the board's position, although Abrams said he personally thought the submission had a "negative tone."
But Abrams said Biles correctly noted what the board liked about the new school finance law and what it didn't.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled the state's $2.7 billion school finance system was unconstitutional, saying it didn't provide adequate funding and funds weren't distributed fairly.
Republicans in the Legislature approved a $125 million increase to public schools, which has since been recalculated to be $142 million. The measure also allows local school districts to increase property taxes that would cumulatively total nearly $500 million.
That law is now being analyzed by the Supreme Court, with sides in the case set to present oral arguments May 11.
In its legal filing, the State Board of Education said the law was an "interim measure" but that it failed the court's definition of constitutionality because the law didn't base school funding on the actual cost of providing an education, and the local tax option widened the disparity between rich and poor school districts.
The law also allows an additional local property tax increase for the "Sweet 17" school districts, including Lawrence, where officials could increase taxes to help pay teacher salaries. The districts, mostly in northeast Kansas and around Wichita, were chosen because of their high cost of living.
Under that plan, Lawrence could increase local property taxes by $1.3 million for teacher salaries.
After Biles' brief was filed, Kline and privately hired attorneys representing the state filed a brief asking the court to disregard the State Board of Education's position and bar it "from raising or arguing new challenges to the state finance formula." No action has been taken on the motion.
Biles and Abrams indicated they thought Kline's brief, and criticism from several Republican lawmakers, was an overreaction.
Abrams and Biles said the board's legal position was that it supported the increased state funding in the new law that will go toward programs for at-risk students, special education and students whose first language is not English.
"We have a disagreement about whether this is the final solution," Biles said.
In fact, the board has asked the court to allow the increased funding to go forward but disallow the proposals to allow local property tax increases, and order the Legislature to produce a cost-of-education study that lawmakers could tackle in the 2006 legislative session.
Abrams said the closed-door session allowed board members to get a better understanding of the board's legal position in the case.