Topeka The Kansas Supreme Court denied a petition Friday from school districts seeking to reopen a 2006 school finance case, saying there is nothing that districts can’t accomplish by filing a new lawsuit.
Attorneys for a coalition of 74 districts argued that Kansas is failing to comply with the court’s earlier ruling that state aid to schools was unconstitutionally low.
“Today’s ruling was a procedural one which will just slow us down a bit,” said John Robb, lead attorney for the school districts that filed the petition. “We are disappointed in the ruling but certainly not deterred. The problem still exists. Kids are still being shortchanged.”
The justices ruled that while they have the power to reopen a case, it should be used with extreme caution and that there were other issues that must be resolved, including whether the original plaintiffs have standing to sue.
“The power to recall a mandate is an extraordinary power to be used as a last resort,” Chief Justice Robert Davis wrote for the court. “It should only be used to accomplish something that, without it, cannot otherwise be remedied. That is not the situation here.”
Robb said a new lawsuit would be filed later this spring. Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who argued the first case, said the petition was “a long shot” and that a new case was necessary.
The view from Lawrence
Scott Morgan, the Lawrence school board president, said Friday morning that the court’s decision did not surprise him, and he said the district will remain focused on trying to cut $5 million from its budget for next school year.
“If manna from heaven were to fall on us through a court case or some mysterious split in the universe, we would certainly welcome it and utilize it,” he said. “But in the real world we’re living in, we have to proceed.”
The Lawrence district in 2006 contributed $5,000 to the school finance lawsuit, but the district now is not a member of Schools for Fair Funding Inc.
Morgan said he hoped legislators this session would increase revenue so school districts don’t have to make any deeper cuts than they are expecting.
Gov. Mark Parkinson said in a statement he was pleased with the court’s ruling, but he expressed concern about lawsuits being filed against the state during tough economic times.
“However, we have a responsibility to fund education at an acceptable level even in a recession. We’ve cut education as much as we can,” he said.
Attorney General Steve Six said he was ready to defend the state against a new lawsuit.
“Our children’s education is critical to the prosperity of our state,” Six said in a statement. “I encourage lawmakers to limit cuts to schools and find a responsible solution to our state’s budget challenges.”
Back in 1999
The original case was filed in 1999 by the parents of Ryan Montoy, a student in the Salina school district. Attorneys argued that the formula Kansas used to determine the amount of money legislators were appropriating to schools and how the money was distributed was unconstitutional.
Legislators responded in the 2005 and 2006 sessions by approving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over several years and changing how those dollars were allocated among the 293 districts. The Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2006 without ruling if the changes to the funding formula or the dollar amounts were in compliance with the state constitution.
Robb, a Newton attorney who also represented the districts when the court ruled on the case, argued that the justices should reopen it because they never ruled if the action legislators took on school funding was constitutional.
Six argued that the school districts were trying to get around a 2005 law requiring any challenge to the school finance formula be filed at the district court level first and heard by a three-judge panel.
Education funding has been reduced over the past year as the state has faced declining revenues. The school districts argue the cuts hurt the quality of education. Six said in his reply that Kansas has experienced “dramatic changes” that have forced the state to reduce government spending to meet its constitutional obligation to have a balanced budget.
Robb said it would save time and money to finish the Montoy case, rather than start again.
In their motion to the Supreme Court, the schools cited a school finance case in Arkansas that was dismissed but later reopened by that state’s Supreme Court after legislators reneged on promises to increase funding. Robb argues a similar situation exists in Kansas.
The justices said in that ruling that any new challenge to the school funding formula would have to come in a new lawsuit filed in district court.