Kansas school district group decides to ask court to re-open school funding lawsuit

? A legal dispute over the funding of Kansas public schools is heading back to court, challenging recent cuts in education spending by the state.

John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, said Thursday that he would file a request within 10 days with the Kansas Supreme Court to reopen a lawsuit over the funding of public school districts. The court ruled in 2006 that the state’s system for financing schools was unconstitutional.

Robb said districts across Kansas hoped to avoid litigation to pressure legislators to restore funds, but going to court was “the lesser of two evils.”

“It’s either use the court to enforce the constitution or hurt kids with further cuts,” he said.

The decision to seek further judicial review comes after the Wichita school board voted Monday to support new litigation. The decision raised the number of school districts supporting the case to 55, representing more than 141,000 Kansas students. Additional districts are considering joining the effort.

Robb said the coalition was broad geographically and demographically, representing the state’s largest district in Wichita to Cheylin with 131 students in northwest Kansas.

“We think the tent is big enough this time to represent all the districts in the state,” Robb said.

Funding for Kansas school districts has been reduced over the past year as the state has struggled with declining revenues caused by the lingering economic slowdown. Gov. Mark Parkinson and the Kansas Legislature have reduced total state aid to 2006 levels.

But Robb and the school districts maintain that those reductions fly in the face of the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling, which forced the state to increase aid to public schools by close to $1 billion over four years.

Derrick Sontag, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates for lower taxes, said schools have seen funding increase by “exorbitant amounts” since the 2003-04 school year, even with last year’s reductions.

State aid for the 2007-08 school year topped $3.1 billion — or $1 billion more than it was in 2003-04. It’s still $2.87 billion for the current school year.

“Spending has drastically gone up,” Sontag said. “This is going to be a battle of getting the correct information out there to Kansans.”

However, Robb said legislators knew it would take new revenues to sustain the spending increases when approved in 2006, yet they continued to cut taxes. The shortfall prompting spending cuts were exacerbated by the bad economy, he said.

“This train wreck was coming the day they passed the reforms,” Robb said. “I find it a little disingenuous that they say there isn’t any money in the checkbook.”

Much of the new money went to programs aimed at boosting academic achievement of at-risk students, including minorities and those in poverty. However, school districts argue that they have been forced to eliminate some 3,700 positions in recent years because of budget cuts, many positions tied directly to student performance.

How quickly the case would get resolved is unclear.

The original lawsuit was filed in 1999 in Shawnee County District Court and took several years to go to trial and reach the Kansas Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court agrees to reopen the case, it could either decide to hear arguments itself or send the case to district court to gather evidence and hear from witnesses.

Robb said there is no precedent for the Kansas Supreme Court to reopen a case that it has dismissed. However, he said a similar situation arose in Arkansas where the court dismissed a school finance lawsuit only to reopen it when legislators reneged on a promise to increase funding.

“We don’t know what the timelines might be,” he said.