Kansas Supreme Court says school funding still inadequate but gives lawmakers another year to fix problems

photo by: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, Pool

Kansas Supreme Court justices take their seats before hearing arguments in a school funding case in Topeka on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, Pool)

Story updated: 5:41 p.m. June 25, 2018

TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court said Monday that the five-year, $522 million increase to school funding that lawmakers approved this year is still inadequate.

But instead of forcing lawmakers into a special session this summer to correct the problems, as it had earlier threatened to do, the court said lawmakers could address problems with the formula during the 2019 regular session that begins in January.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, the Lawrence school district is expected to receive an additional $3.4 million in funding under the new formula, including just less than $1.3 million in new special education funding.

In a unanimous 39-page opinion, the court said the major problem with the funding plan was its failure to properly account for inflation during the first two years.

It also questioned the calculations used to determine funding for virtual schools.

Lawmakers passed the bill this year after the Supreme Court in October struck down a two-year, $293 million funding increase that lawmakers passed in 2017.

The court said at that time that it would give the Legislature one more chance to pass a formula that meets constitutional muster but that it would not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional formula beyond June 30.

In its ruling Monday, however, the court said that because of the work lawmakers had done in 2018, the issues now remaining to be resolved are much narrower than they were in October, when the court found the funding formula at that time to be both inadequate and inequitable.

On Monday, the court said the state had satisfactorily resolved all of the equity issues, at least under present circumstances, and it indicated that the remaining adequacy issues could be resolved.

“We have confidence the legislature can again meet its constitutional duty,” the court said.

During oral arguments before the court in May, plaintiffs in the case argued that the $522 million in new funding that lawmakers approved was far short of what was needed, arguing that schools actually needed upward of $1.5 billion a year in new funding. They also cited a report by the state’s own consultants saying the figure should be between $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion.

Attorneys for the state, however, argued that lawmakers chose what the court had previously called a “safe harbor” approach — that is, going back to the 2010 funding levels the court had previously found constitutional and adjusting that for inflation.

The court accepted that approach but found fault in the way lawmakers had calculated the impact of inflation.

First, the court said there were technical issues with how lawmakers calculated inflation for the 2017-2018 and the 2018-2019 school years.

In addition, though, it also challenged the overall figure of $522 million in additional funding. It said that could be used as the amount needed to bring the state into compliance this year, but the legislative plan doesn’t achieve that level of funding until the 2022-2023 school year, with no adjustment for inflation over that period of time.

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiff school districts, said he looked forward to working with lawmakers on a final resolution of the lawsuit.

“We trust that the legislature can come together and solve the issue in short order to avoid any future disruption of Kansas students’ education,” he said in a statement. “The cuts to education were painful as they occurred and continue to be as painful today. We look forward to gaining the resources to reverse these cuts. Our kids deserve no less.”

The court laid out a schedule similar to the one it used following last year’s decision, giving all parties until April 15, 2019, to submit briefs detailing what lawmakers have done to address the remaining issues and saying it would render a decision by June 30, 2019.

But it also encouraged lawmakers to act sooner, even if that means calling a special session on their own initiative, to accelerate the timeline.

“Acceleration is greatly encouraged because 286 school districts must plan for the upcoming school year — districts that serve more than 489,000 students and employ more than 37,000 teachers, over 3,600 other licensed personnel, and over 26,000 unclassified employees,” the court said.

The Lawrence school board was scheduled to receive a briefing on its budget options for the upcoming school year during its regular meeting Monday night.

The case, Gannon v. Kansas, was filed in 2010 after then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, ordered cuts in K-12 funding because of rapidly declining state revenues at the start of the Great Recession. The case was initially tried by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court, and Monday’s decision represented the sixth time that the Kansas Supreme Court has weighed in on it.

Reaction from legislative leaders and candidates running for higher office in 2018 was varied.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is running in a hotly contested primary for the GOP nomination for governor this year, declared victory.

“When I became Governor earlier this year, I outlined my priorities for a school finance plan. Specifically, one that would keep our schools open, get more money into the classroom and improve student outcomes without raising taxes. And we got it done,” Colyer said in an email statement.

But Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of Colyer’s main rivals in the GOP primary, accused the Supreme Court of overstepping its bounds, and he called for a constitutional amendment to rein in the court’s authority in school finance cases.

“The Court is acting in a matter that is far outside of its judicial role,” Kobach said in a statement. “The time has come for a constitutional amendment making clear the judiciary of Kansas may not determine education spending amounts.”

Republican Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, who is also running for governor, issued a statement calling for greater accountability in the way education money is spent. Another candidate, former Republican state Sen. Jim Barnett, said he supports the court’s ruling.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said she respected the court’s decision.

“We will work together in the coming year to fully fund our schools and give all children the opportunities they deserve,” she said in a statement.

And House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called the decision a victory for schoolchildren.

“The Kansas Supreme Court reaffirmed the legislature’s Constitutional responsibility to provide suitable educational opportunities for every child,” he said in a statement. “House Democrats are committed to working with anyone ready to solve the problems of school funding and end the constant litigation.”


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