Soon into a Tuesday morning webinar, stressed Kansas school administrators fearing a June 30 shutdown began piling on the questions.
What about summer nutrition programs for needy families? What about summer construction projects? Can we still pay utility bills? Can we still mow the grass?
The fear over exhausting details came raining down over the biggest question: What if we can’t get schools open on time come August?
The schools twist in limbo after the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday rejected the Legislature’s latest attempt to satisfy the court’s directive to provide equitable funding between richer and poorer school districts in the state.
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“We don’t have good answers,” said Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards, which set up the webinar. “Because this situation is completely unprecedented.”
It’s a situation, said Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White, “that’s going to take a level of true leadership and cooperation that we have never seen before.”
“We’ve got to come together and stop this cycle (of funding battles),” White said, “or it’s going to have long-term detrimental effects … for our kids, our schools and our communities.”
The court ruled Friday that the Legislature’s attempt earlier this year to rewrite its education funding laws fell short of resolving what the court had previously ruled unconstitutional inequity in how the state distributes funds.
The Legislature, which effectively adjourned in mid-May, is scheduled to meet Wednesday in a ceremonial ending to its session, raising the possibility of trying at that time to rewrite the law once again.
But Senate President Susan Wagle said Tuesday that the state’s attorneys needed more time to review the court’s ruling and that it was unlikely it would take up school funding Wednesday.
That would mean that Gov. Sam Brownback would need to call for a special session to resolve the conflict with the court.
Time is pressing on school districts, which already typically pack the days between the end of summer school and the fall session with critical work.
“There is roofing, repaving, painting, cleaning …,” said David Smith, the chief of staff for Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools. “It goes and goes and goes all summer long.
“And we have many kids who depend on summer feeding programs. What do we do about that?”
Summer staff workers worry about their jobs, superintendents said. And, the districts worry, if hourly staff members understandably jump to other jobs, can districts get them back in time?
Districts in the middle of construction projects wonder what a shutdown would mean to interest and bond payments.
“These are all things we have to look at,” said Marlin Berry, Olathe Public Schools superintendent.
“We’re trying to be prepared as much as possible,” he said. But it’s important not “to get buried in the weeds,” he said. “I believe people will always pull together.”
The ramifications of a shutdown, or even the prospect of a shutdown, run far and wide across the state, Tallman said.
He said state school districts and state education offices employ some 66,000 people, who represent about 4.5 percent of the state’s workforce.
“Can you imagine the economic consequences if 4.5 percent of your workforce is idled and unpaid?” he said. “It is a cascading problem the longer it might go on.”
The federal government in the past has suffered shutdowns over budget crises, and accommodations were made to keep essential employees doing critical jobs at their posts.
But just what schools in Kansas could or could not do has not been defined by the court. The court’s only guidance so far is that if the funding remained, in the court’s opinion, unconstitutional, then this ruling would block that funding.
The state could not raise, distribute or spend money on schools, the court warned.
“We are going to need an immense amount of direction from the court,” White said. “We are in uncharted waters.”
Another possibility worrying schools is that the Legislature could rewrite its funding law but find itself back in court arguing with the plaintiff school districts.
There would probably be a need for briefings and a hearing with arguments, Tallman said.
“Would the court postpone its deadline?” he wondered.
The funding mechanisms for schools are densely complicated and not easily altered, especially with Kansas and its budget crisis, which has mounted since the state cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.
The court took exception to the way the Kansas funding plan distributed funds through local option budgets that give districts flexibility in raising more money locally. Lawmakers are in a difficult position to try to distribute more funding to poorer school districts without harming other districts that are already faced with budget cuts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.