Kansas City, Mo. — Parents in a wealthy suburban Kansas City school district cannot seek to raise property taxes above a state cap because it could bring down Kansas' entire school funding system, a federal judge ruled Friday.
A lawsuit filed by parents in Kansas' Shawnee Mission school district claimed state school funding is inadequate, citing $20 million in cuts over the last two years. They sought a temporary injunction to bypass a provision in state law and ask voters for a local tax hike to fund schools.
U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum dismissed the lawsuit, saying the local option budget cap — which limits the amount of money school districts can raise beyond what the state provides — is not severable from the rest of the funding formula.
"If plaintiffs were to prevail on their claim that the cap is unconstitutional, the entire scheme would be struck down," Lungstrum wrote.
The Kansas Legislature created the funding formula in 2005, in response to a lawsuit filed by dozens of school districts claiming the state wasn't meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools. The local option tax was capped so wealthy districts wouldn't have an unfair advantage over poorer ones, and the Shawnee Mission district — one of the wealthiest in Kansas — has reached the maximum amount allowed.
Lawmakers wrote into the law that the cap on local property taxes could not be broken away from the rest of the formula. Lungstrum said that means if he sided with parents and ruled the cap unconstitutional, it would dismantle the entire formula, so he decided not to rule "on the question of whether there is a rational basis" for the local cap.
The state's attorney in the case, Alan Rupe, agreed: "We characterized it as Armageddon," he said.
An attorney for the parents, Tristan Duncan, was thankful for the quick ruling but hoped her clients would win on appeal in time to hold a tax vote and have the new money available for next year's school budget, which must be completed by Aug. 25.
"We're disappointed, but we intend to file an appeal soon," Duncan said, adding that a Harvard constitutional law expert helping on the case "believes there is constitutional significance to this case and we will be vindicated on appeal."
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the decision leaves balance intact.
"We will continue to defend the authority of the Legislature and the governor to set school funding priorities and to balance competing interests," Schmidt said in a statement.
Rupe said it was clear ahead of Friday's ruling that whichever side came up short would appeal.
Rupe also is representing more than 60 school districts in a separate lawsuit that claims Kansas hasn't adequately funded schools as required by the 2005 formula. He suggested the Shawnee Mission parents join that lawsuit if they wanted to increase state aid.
"These are hard times in education," he said. "You can't talk to anyone in education who wouldn't tell you there's not enough to go around."