Kansas Senate leader says don’t expect action on school funding this week; other leaders talk of defying court

photo by: Nick Krug

Senate president Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is pictured at the Kansas Statehouse in this file photo from Monday, June 8, 2015.

? Kansas lawmakers will not try to address the latest Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school finance when they return to the Statehouse Wednesday, and public schools are being advised to make contingency plans for a possible court-ordered shutdown on July 1.

Lawmakers return to the Statehouse Wednesday for the official closing of the 2016 session, a ceremony known as “sine die.”

Senate President Susan Wagle issued a statement Tuesday that said the Legislature’s attorneys have not had time to analyze the court’s latest decision, which said lawmakers have until June 30 to come up with a new funding plan that distributes money to the state’s 286 school districts equitably.

That would mean legislators would have to come back for a special session later this month if they are to respond to the court’s decision.

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said a special session is not guaranteed, and a large number of lawmakers whom he’s spoken to say they’re willing to defy the court’s order, although it wasn’t clear whether there are enough lawmakers who feel that way to block legislation from passing.

Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, told reporters that he is among those who are willing to defy the Supreme Court, saying he believes the court has no jurisdiction to tell 286 locally elected school boards that they cannot open their schools.

And Bruce said there are some who believe an appeal to federal courts may be possible because an order by the Kansas Supreme Court to close the schools could interfere with the operation of some federally funded programs.

Bruce and other GOP leaders met for much of the day with Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt to discuss the court ruling.

About 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Brownback’s spokeswoman. Eileen Hawley. said no decision had been made about a special session. Schmidt would only say that the decision is up to the governor and legislators.

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the school finance case, said earlier Tuesday that he remains hopeful that lawmakers will respond to the ruling.

“As long as they have a special session before June 30, that will work, but the window of opportunity does become smaller,” he said. “Ultimately believe they will get it done because that’s what the people of Kansas want.”

Also Tuesday, the Kansas Association of School Boards advised local school boards to begin discussions and prepare for the possibility of a court-ordered shutdown of the public school system.

But KASB President John Heim said that even in July, when most schools are closed except for summer school programs, a court order blocking the distribution of school funds, or an order blocking districts from spending money after June 30 could have far-reaching consequences, and he strongly urged local school board members to communicate that to their legislators.

“In my opinion, they should be talking about … the significance of back-office operations, the implications of not paying insurance, the implications of not being able to make a bond payment, and what that means to the future of Kansas bond issues and interest rates,” Heim said.

In 2005, lawmakers faced a similar threat from the Supreme Court in another school finance case, Montoy v. Kansas. It lasted 12 days while GOP conservatives dug in their heels, refusing at first to comply with an order to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In that case, though, the court had made clear how much money was needed to provide adequate funding for public schools.

In the current case, Gannon v. Kansas, the immediate issue isn’t about how much money is needed. Rather, it’s about distributing that funding equitably, and the court has been much less specific about what the Legislature needs to do to cure the constitutional problem.

It has, however, suggested one possible solution: reinstate the old formula for distributing equalization aid for local option budgets, a formula that the Legislature repealed last year, and then fully fund that formula. Local option budgets are an important source of funding for local school districts, allowing them to supplement state funding with local taxpayer funding.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, reinstating the old formula would cost about $38 million more than the state appropriated this year. And if lawmakers want a “hold harmless” provision to make sure no districts end up taking an overall cut, that would cost another $12 million.

That would consume a large portion of the estimated $87.5 million ending balance that the state expects to have at the end of the next fiscal year.

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he doubts the Legislature will try to defy the court.

“I don’t think that the legislative leaders want to precipitate a constitutional crisis between the courts and the Legislature, so I think we will try once more to meet the court’s objectives,” he said. “My concern is that it won’t be adequate, whatever they try to do. But I do think the legislative leadership and the Legislature as a whole will pass something before the end of June.”