April 6, 2013

Attorneys seeking settlement in Kansas school funding case

The Kansas Supreme Court ordered mediation weeks ago in a school funding lawsuit, but there's no sense that progress has been made toward a settlement.

The Kansas Supreme Court ordered mediation weeks ago in a school funding lawsuit, but there's no sense that progress has been made toward a settlement.

The talks began in recent weeks to resolve the dispute over whether the state is fulfilling its obligation to adequately fund public schools.

Kansas is appealing a January ruling by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County that legislators must increase the state's annual spending on schools by at least $440 million. The lawsuit was filed in November 2010 by the parents and guardians of 32 students and the school districts of Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., after the state backed off from previous promises on education funding. The state is the only defendant.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, both Republicans, sought the mediation, saying they wanted to see whether the parties could resolve the case out of court. The court agreed, but also told both sides to prepare for an Oct. 8 hearing before the seven justices.

Attorneys representing the state and parents are under a gag order not to discuss progress in the settlement talks.

Legislators have been working on several school finance provisions, which an attorney for the parents and school districts said Thursday does little to change the dynamics of the dispute.

“There is some stuff the legislature is attempting to do that I don't think will affect the case at all,” said John Robb, a Newton attorney. Robb described bills to modify the way school funding is counted and increase the ability of certain wealthy districts to raise additional funds as “smoke and mirrors.”

“Not going to fool the court,” he said. “It's just craziness to think that accounting maneuvers would fool the court and turn an apple into an orange.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said late Friday that a bill legislators sent to Brownback defied the lower court's order because of changes to the school finance formula. At issue was a provision that allows four of the state's 286 school districts to levy additional property taxes to compensate for rapid enrollment growth.

The Topeka Democrat said extending the provision already in law for six years perpetuates inequities in the formula that allows wealthy districts to benefit by having more money at their disposal, which allows them to lure teachers from poorer districts by offering higher salaries.

“We're thumbing our noses to the court. That's exactly what this bill does,” Hensley said.

But Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said without the bill, the Legislature would also be violating the court order by letting the provision lapse.

“We would be derelict in not doing it because it is already in the law,” he said.

The justices ordered mediation to run concurrently with preparation for the October hearing date, meaning that talks could last up until the attorneys go before the state Supreme Court, or even until a ruling is issued in late 2013 or 2014.

However, the Kansas Constitution only gives the authority to the Legislature to appropriate money. That means the 125-member House and 40 senators would have to authorize the state to pay an agreed-upon amount before adjourning in May. Any agreement after that point would require a legislative special session.

That's what happened in 2005, when legislators met for two weeks – June 22 to July 6 – to develop a one-year, $148.2 million school funding package, which the court viewed as an “interim step” toward satisfying student needs. Legislators followed it with a more comprehensive, three-year plan.

Combined, the two packages increased school spending by nearly $1 billion.

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