Shawnee Mission School District parents will have their day in court after all.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver revived a school finance case Thursday by reversing a trial court’s decision to dismiss.
It means Shawnee Mission parents can ask a judge to lift the cap on local option school budgets and tax themselves more for local schools.
“We think it’s a great decision and we’re excited for (U.S. Judge John W. Lungstrum) to have an opportunity to now rule on the constitutionality on the merits of the cap,” said plaintiff attorney Tristan Duncan.
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 when the school district, which is not part of the lawsuit, was closing schools because of a state funding crisis.
“The community rose up because they were closing schools as a result of reduced funding. And the community basically said, ‘What can we do about this? How can we stop this from happening? We want to save our neighborhood schools,’ ” said Duncan, an attorney with Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
Some taxpayers repeatedly asked school board members to increase taxes, but it wasn’t an option because of a state-imposed spending cap.
The cap was a violation of citizens’ rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments, said Duncan, whose co-counsel is Harvard law professor Larry Tribe.
“The law violates our fundamental rights to spend our own money on something we value, which is the education of our own children,” Duncan said.
In March 2011, Lungstrum dismissed the case not on merit, but because he agreed with the defendants, Gov. Sam Brownback and other state officials, that if the local option budget provision of school funding was severed, then the entire system would break down.
The appellate court ruled that the case must first be heard to determine the constitutionality of the cap.
State officials could not be reached for comment.
The Shawnee Mission district is on record voicing its support for lifting the cap.
The case is one of two prominent lawsuits — both naming the state as a defendant — over school funding being considered by courts this year.
This past summer, a three-judge Kansas state court panel heard from a coalition of parents and school districts collectively known as Schools for Fair Funding. The group argued that the state did not live up to its constitutional obligations to fund schools by arbitrarily cutting school funding as it handed out $500 million in annual tax breaks.
A victory by the coalition of school districts could force the state to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into K-12 funding across the state. A decision is not expected for several months.
While the two cases are separate, attorneys representing Schools for Fair Funding did ask to intervene in the suit filed by Shawnee Mission parents. Attorneys, whose clients include the Kansas City, Kan., and Gardner Edgerton school districts, said that lifting the local option budget cap would further widen spending inequalities in the state. Wealthy districts could spend unlimited funds, while poor districts couldn’t keep up.
“Schools for Fair Funding intervened in this case to protect the wealth-balancing and equalization portions of the school finance formula. The matter is now headed back to Judge Lungstrum for further proceedings and we intend to be there to protect the formula,” said John Robb, attorney for Schools for Fair Funding.
“This case is about equal opportunity and equal access to resources for all Kansas kids regardless of the wealth of their school district. Unlimited local property taxation does not provide equal access to resources for all kids.”
Duncan disagreed, saying the funding strategy already has an unequal distribution.
“Nobody is going to lose one penny of the money they’re already getting if the cap is removed,” she said.