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Archive for Monday, May 9, 2005

Schools seeking swift resolution on state funding

District budget plans in limbo until court makes ruling

May 9, 2005

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— Memo from schools to Kansas Supreme Court: Please hurry.

"When you stand out here with your pants down, you get cold," Lawrence school Supt. Randy Weseman said.

Weseman drew the analogy to how vulnerable schools feel with the new school finance law pending before the court.

The Lawrence school district, like districts across the state, is making budgetary decisions in education spending without knowing what the court will do with the school finance law.

On Wednesday, the court will have oral arguments to consider the law passed by the Legislature in response to an earlier court order that lawmakers had failed to provide "suitable" finance for schools, as required by the Kansas Constitution.

The new law has many critics, including Weseman, but he said at this stage of the game, the court needed to set clear direction on school finance as soon as possible because budgeting for the next school year must be completed soon.

"The new fiscal year starts July 1 and a new budget takes over," Weseman said. "I'd like to have a couple of days to get ready."

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius agreed. School administrators "need to know what the budgets are by this summer because those really trigger the printing of school budgets, and by the end of August, they trigger a lot of property tax issues in communities across the state."

Alan Rupe, the attorney representing plaintiff school districts who say the state has shorted school funding, has been waiting six years since the filing of the lawsuit for the dispute to be resolved.









Oral arguments start at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Kansas Supreme Court courtroom in the Judicial Center, 301 SW 10th Ave., Topeka.Attorneys for the state of Kansas will argue first and will have one hour of time. Attorneys for the State Board of Education will argue second and have 15 minutes. Both defendants may choose to reserve a portion of their time for rebuttal.Plaintiffs, which are the school districts that sued the state, will have one hour and 15 minutes for argument.The arguments will be video-streamed live over the Internet. Links and instructions for accessing the live broadcasts will be included on the Kansas courts Web site at www.kscourts.org and at www.kanedlive.org.

"All we want is adequate funding for every school district in Kansas," Rupe said.

Long-running battle

The fight is over the school finance system that funnels monies to educate nearly 450,000 Kansas students.

In 2003, a state district court judge ruled that the system was unconstitutional because it short-changed all students, especially minorities and those with handicaps.

At the start of 2005, the state Supreme Court told the Legislature to increase funding, make school finance based on actual costs of education instead of politics, and distribute the monies in a more equitable manner.

Republicans in the Legislature approved House Bill 2247, which increases school funding by $142 million, allows local districts to increase property taxes by nearly $500 million statewide, and allows an additional local property tax increase for the "Sweet 17" school districts, which includes Lawrence. Those districts are allowed to provide an additional tax increase for teachers because the districts, mostly in Johnson County and suburban Wichita, have higher costs of living.

The Lawrence school district would get about $2.2 million more in school funding under the bill and could raise an additional $3 million in local property taxes.









Weseman said school officials were preparing budgets based on several scenarios, including one in which the court upholds the law, and one in which the court agrees with the extra state funding but rejects the local tax options.

Critical baggage

Critics say the law is underfunded because two previous cost-of-education studies have pegged the needed increase from $600 million to $1 billion. And they say the law is unconstitutional because the local tax options worsen the gap between rich and poor school districts. Sebelius has hammered the law because it fails to provide a revenue source after one year, which would drive the state budget into a deficit by July 2006.

Lawrence school board member Sue Morgan put it this way about the new law: "Do we think the law meets the Supreme Court's parameters? No. Are we desperate enough that we will take this year what we can get? Yes."

She said the "Sweet 17" local property tax option "is a real plus for us, but it's not for others clearly."

Morgan said she hoped the court would "direct the Legislature to do it the way they should do it."

She was displeased that the Legislature rejected the previous studies on education costs and has initiated a new one. "They've already done two studies, and the answer wasn't what they want to hear," she said.

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