For six uneasy weeks, Kansas lawmakers contemplated the prospect of shuttered public schools if they didn’t fix a state financing formula.
On Thursday, they overwhelmingly approved a plan they hope will avert such a shutdown. Whether it can pass muster with the state Supreme Court remains to be seen.
The court last month ordered the Legislature to fix funding inequities among school districts or, it said, the state’s public schools wouldn’t open for the 2016-2017 school year.
GOP leaders pushed for approval of the bill Thursday, before lawmakers left on a monthlong break. The plan won passage by lopsided margins: a 32-5 vote in the Senate and 93-31 in the House. The bill now goes to the governor.
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It was several weeks after the Feb. 11 court ruling before any proposals were presented, and a House bill last week met with withering criticism from Johnson County lawmakers and died in committee.
The measure approved Thursday was introduced just two days ago. Responding to criticism about fast-tracking the bill this week, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson said, “There was a dictate by the court, with the hammer of closing the schools.”
Masterson, an Andover Republican, said moving ahead this week would give the court time to review the plan. Lawmakers return to the Capitol at the end of April.
Despite the wide margin of passage in the House and Senate, sharp disagreements arose among legislators over whether the state’s high court will sign off on the plan.
Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said the court could expedite briefings to review the plan.
“My hope is that we could get a decision by the court in early May,” King said.
Last month, in the long-running school finance lawsuit called Gannon v. Kansas, the Kansas high court ruled that the state had failed to correct inequities between wealthier and poorer school districts. The court gave the Legislature until June 30 to enact a proper equalization formula.
Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission school district officials voiced support for the bill this week, but it drew opposition from the Kansas City, Kan., district.
The plan applies a less generous equalization formula to a category of state aid called the “local option budget.” The funds are then used to pay for “hold harmless” assistance, which keeps districts from losing state aid next year.
Unlike earlier proposals, no districts lose funds under the plan, but few districts receive additional money. The plan requires only about $2 million in additional state spending.
During the Senate debate Thursday, proponents said the plan uses a formula approved by the high court as constitutionally valid for equalization.
And as the formula is applied, it reduces the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest districts, a finding verified by the state’s legislative research staff, they said.
“I believe what’s before us meets constitutional muster,” said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said school districts appreciate the plan and its hold-harmless provision.
“It will give all of the districts the certainty they need, the reliability they need ... in order to go into this next school year,” Fitzgerald said.
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the formula does not meet the court’s equity test and could result in property tax increases.
“We’re setting up a system that’s unconstitutional,” he said. “It won’t comply with the court order.”
The plan simply shifts resources, he said. And by reducing school districts’ local option budgets, school officials could ask taxpayers to increase property taxes in their districts, which statewide could amount to $83 million, Hensley said.
“Talk about disequalizing,” he said. “That’s a formula for disaster.”
On the House side, Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the plan doesn’t pass muster because it amounts to districts “self-funding” the equalization plan.
“It doesn’t seem like something the courts will accept,” he said. “It doesn’t appear we’re doing our jobs to equalize schools.”
Several lawmakers protested that the bill was presented just two days before they were asked to debate it and vote. Some said they were skeptical of the plan but felt the deadline almost forced them to vote “yes.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said the state’s school finance issues deserve more thoughtful deliberation by lawmakers than what took place this week on the equalization proposal. And, she said, lawmakers should resolve the equity issue as part of a complete school finance formula, she said.
But lawmakers had a Hobson’s choice Thursday, Rooker said. To move forward, it was important to present a solution to the court.
“We’re going to have to give them something they can deliberate on,” she said.
At committee hearings Wednesday, officials from the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission districts spoke in favor of the equalization plan.
Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson said it provided stability for school districts, and he thanked lawmakers for including a hold-harmless provision.
“It doesn’t create a system of winners and losers,” Hinson said about the plan.
In earlier proposals, the Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe districts would have lost millions in state aid.
Under the bill approved Thursday, Shawnee Mission, for instance, would see about a $3 million decrease in local option budget aid, but it would receive that amount in hold-harmless aid.
Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White agreed the plan provided budget certainty for districts, saying it was “not only critical, but the best available option we have, given the circumstances the court has mandated.”
Officials with the Kansas City, Kan., and Wichita school districts, plaintiffs in the Gannon lawsuit, doubted the court would accept the plan.
“This does not resolve the equity issue,” said Cynthia Lane, superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., district. “It redistributes the same amount of money that was deemed inequitable.”
Jim Freeman, chief financial officer of the Wichita district, said the plan needed additional funding to satisfy the court ruling.
“Our position is that rather than equalizing down, we need to equalize up,” Freeman said.
The equalization plan addresses the 2016-2017 school year only. Last year, the Legislature enacted a two-year block grant program for districts until the Legislature could devise a new overall school finance formula. That work remains.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in February dealt with the “equity” portion of the Gannon case. A ruling is expected later this year in the “adequacy” part of the case — whether the state adequately funds public schools.