U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Shawnee Mission school finance appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused, without comment, to hear arguments in the Shawnee Mission School District’s lawsuit that sought to overturn the state’s cap on how much money local school districts can raise through local property taxes.

Monday’s decision means that lower court rulings upholding those limits still stand.

The case, Petrella v. Brownback, was filed in December 2010, about the same time four other school districts filed suit in state court, challenging the adequacy and equity of all K-12 school funding in Kansas.

But the Petrella case was different. Instead of seeking more money from the state on behalf of all school districts, it sought only to free the hands of individual districts by allowing them to raise as much money as they want through local property taxes.

That has long been a point of contention in the largely middle-class, suburban school district, which has a relatively high amount of property wealth compared to other districts.

At the time the case was filed, the state determined the general fund budget of all school districts on a per-pupil basis, with added weight assigned to students in certain hard-to-teach categories such as being from low-income or non-English speaking households.

Districts were also allowed to raise additional money beyond that, through “local option budgets,” or LOBs. But the amount they could raise was capped at 30 percent of their state-funded general fund budgets. The purpose of the cap was to ensure some level of equity in the quality of education available between rich and poor school districts.

In March 2011, U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum ruled against Shawnee Mission, saying the LOB portion of the funding formula could not be severed from the rest of the system. He also said that school districts have no independent taxing authority of their own, and therefore overturning the law allowing them to levy for local option budgets would leave them with no taxing authority at all.

Since then, however, Kansas lawmakers have repealed the old formula, although they left the LOB portion in place. The old formula was replaced for two years with a system of block grants that are based on how much each district received under the old formula.

Shawnee Mission then appealed the district’s court decision to the 10th Circuit, but that court rejected the school district’s argument in a ruling handed down in June.