School finance fix may be easier than first thought

photo by: Associated Press

Members of the Kansas House look up to the voting board after casting their votes on an amendment to a school funding compromise by House and Senate leadership on Saturday, April 7, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Kansas lawmakers were told Wednesday that fixing an $80 million problem in the recently-passed school finance bill may be easier than many first assumed.

During a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees, staff from the Legislative Research Department said lawmakers do not need to add another $80 million in K-12 education funding to fix the problem because the money has already been appropriated.

The problem, they said, lies in the formula that distributes money to the state’s 286 school districts. Without fixing a flaw in that formula, the staff said, the Kansas State Department of Education would simply end the next fiscal year with $80 million of unspent money in its account.

Later in the day, Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, who serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, introduced a bill to change that part of the formula. And Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Shawnee, who serves on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, posted on social media that she would do the same on the House side.

The bill is intended to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to provide constitutionally adequate funding for public schools. But it passed both chambers of the Legislature on the final night of the regular session on Saturday, April 7, with only the bare minimum number of yes votes — 63 in the House and 21 in the Senate.

The $80 million problem wasn’t discovered until sometime over that weekend, after lawmakers had adjourned and gone home for a three-week break, and it threatened to re-open the entire school finance debate during the wrap-up session.

So great was the uncertainty, in fact, that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt petitioned the Supreme Court for an extension of the state’s April 30 deadline to submit briefs detailing what the Legislature had done to comply with the court’s earlier order.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the court granted that request, giving parties in the lawsuit an additional week, until Monday, May 7, to file their briefs.

The court has said it will issue its ruling no later than June 30, saying whether or not lawmakers have passed a constitutional funding formula. It has also said it will not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional formula beyond that date.