State braces for potential legal bill

? Attorneys representing a group of school districts that successfully sued the state over education funding are still looking to get paid.

The team of lawyers has offered to drop a pending federal lawsuit if the state agrees to pay their legal fees.

Records have shown that Schools for Fair Funding, financed by 19 school districts, spent some $3.2 million between 1997 and 2005. However, attorney Alan Rupe said legal fees would be substantially less than that.

Still, state officials are furious, saying taxpayers shouldn’t have to cover the legal expenses, especially given that the case never went to trial.

“These guys have already got rich,” House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said. “I don’t know why they need any more money.”

But Rupe told The Associated Press on Friday that the state has only itself to blame for the size of the legal fees. Not only did it help prolong the litigation, he said, it could have avoided that litigation by meeting its duty under the Kansas Constitution to adequately fund schools.

“At any point along the line, they could have stopped the attorneys fees in their tracks,” Rupe said in a telephone interview. “They’re the ones who decided to fight this in court.”

Schools for Fair Funding bankrolled a 1999 lawsuit against the state over education funding. Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court declared the state in violation of constitutional mandates on financing K-12 education, leading the Legislature to phase in an $831 million increase in aid over four years, beginning with the 2005-06 academic year.

The Supreme Court dismissed the state case on July 28.

The federal version of the suit is still pending, and U.S. District Court Judge Monti Belot is expected to decide in January or February if the districts would be to “prevailing party” in the issue.

Kansas State Board of Education attorney Dan Biles said that if Belot sides with the districts, the group’s attorneys could try to recoup their expenses from the state.

“I objected to it on behalf of my clients,” Biles said.

Rupe wasn’t allowed to seek reimbursement for the legal fees in the state case, leaving the federal case as his only option.