Kansas lawmakers to form special school finance study committee

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, left, and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, right, debate forming an interim committee to study school finance issues during a Legislative Coordinating Council meeting Monday.

? Topeka — Kansas legislative leaders on Monday authorized forming a special study committee to review the recent Supreme Court ruling on school finance, but Democrats said they have concerns about how far the committee might go.

Lawmakers were not able to agree on a proposal to hire new lawyers to advise the Legislature as it prepares for the next round of appeals or on whether to conduct a new cost study to estimate how much more money should be put into the school finance formula.

During a meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council, which includes the top seven leaders from both parties in the House and Senate, the panel agreed to form an 11-member committee that will spend three days between now and the start of the 2018 legislative session reviewing the court’s decision that struck down current school funding levels as insufficient.

The panel is expected to make recommendations about how to respond to that decision. But it will also consider proposals to put an end to what House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, called a “perennial and perpetual threat to school closures.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said he was concerned that might include proposals to amend or even repeal a provision of the Kansas Constitution that requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision” for financing public schools. That’s the provision that has been at the heart of both major school finance lawsuits in recent years: Montoy v. Kansas in 2005 and the current case, Gannon v. Kansas.

“I think the game plan for the Republican leadership is to try to amend the constitution so they can get themselves out from underneath the suitability clause of Article 6,” Hensley told reporters after the meeting.

Ryckman, however, said he believes reviewing that provision may be appropriate because he thinks the Kansas Supreme Court has interpreted it differently than the voters intended when it was added to the Constitution in 1966.

“I’d like to maybe go back, if we could, to 1966 and see if the folks who voted thought that the word ‘suitable’ meant adequate and equal, which they might,” Ryckman said, “and if ‘equal’ means that the district I represent can no longer pay their utility bills from their own property taxes.”

The constitutional amendment that was approved in 1966 came shortly after the state had gone through a long and arduous process of school district consolidation, during which the state transitioned from having more than 2,000 different school districts, some of which did not offer a full K-12 curriculum, to just a few hundred K-12 systems, each with its own superintendent and board of education.

One of the major changes the amendment brought was to eliminate the county-level office known as the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and to establish an elected State Board of Education that would be led by a commissioner hired by the board. That framework continues to this day.

The amendment also put certain responsibilities on the Legislature to “provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools,” and to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

That language is similar to the language of many other state constitutions. And, like other state supreme courts have ruled, the Kansas Supreme Court has said the latter clause means the Legislature has to provide funding that is both “adequate” and “equitable.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, however, said he also believes the court has strayed from what voters had in mind back in 1966, and that it is not reflecting the will of the people.

“The voters are sending legislators, pro-education legislators, to both chambers,” he told reporters. “They’re passing bills to fund schools with a majority, and they’re being ruled unconstitutional. So one solution — there’s going to be many solutions — but one solution would be that the voters re-evaluate what ‘suitable’ means to them and let them take a vote on it.”

In its ruling Oct. 2 striking down the current funding level, the court did not specifically say how much more funding would be needed. It only said that the state had failed to meet its burden of proof to show that the amount lawmakers provided this year was “reasonably calculated” to have all students meet or exceed standards that the court says define an adequate education.

The court did note, however, that there was strong and competent evidence to show that a significant increase would be needed, above and beyond the nearly $200 million increase lawmakers provided this year.

Plaintiffs in the case have said they believe another $600 million a year in additional funding is needed to meet the standard of adequacy.

With that in mind, lawmakers are anxiously awaiting a new Consensus Revenue Estimate due to be released on Thursday showing how much tax revenue the state can expect to bring in for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and for the next year.

Most analysts are expecting the estimates to go up because the state has been collecting more than the current estimates each month this fiscal year.

“I think they’ll go up. I don’t know how much easier it’ll make our job, but I think our revenue picture obviously is improving,” Hensley said. “To the extent we can actually fund a school finance bill to where it’s an adequate level, I’m not sure yet. We’ll just have to see where that goes.”