As Kansas legislators, we often have differences of opinion as to what types of laws should be enacted in the state. This type of debate is a sign of a working democracy, and it must continue. In fact, it should be celebrated.
What we cannot condone is conduct that does not comply with laws that have been enacted and are in effect to guide our state government. In its most basic form, this is the rule of law. It is a principle that should take precedence over any individual, and in fact protects the rights of each person from any individuals or entities attempting to put themselves above the law.
In December, an audit discovered that the Kansas Department of Education, or KSDE, has been ignoring a statutory formula passed into law over 40 years ago. That law should guide how the department funds school transportation. But the KSDE has been using its own formula, which has resulted in an extra $45 million going to some of the most densely populated school districts in the state over the last five years.
This has strayed from this guiding principle of the rule of law. In essence, some KSDE officials’ argument is that it is somehow lawful not to follow the law simply because a former legislator, now deceased, had ordered that it should be violated many years ago.
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So the rationale is that the district’s own funding formula has become lawful simply because the law has been broken for so long — perhaps decades — or because a great number of people may have known this was happening but did not stop it. In other words, this lawlessness was open and transparent.
These defenses are not logical or reasonable, and they stand the rule of law on its head.
These explanations from KSDE executives may or may not be true, but it is beside the point. It matters not. The singular issue is whether Kansas school finance law was complied with or violated.
Let me recast the issue somewhat: If the 25 school districts that have been getting extra funding had instead been wrongfully denied tens of millions of dollars just because a legislator did not like those districts, wouldn’t the Legislature have the absolute lawful obligation to assure that those districts receive the money they are owed according to Kansas law? The answer is yes — and I would be among the first to pay that money to those districts.
Kansas statute 72-5136 and its predecessors guide the Legislature precisely in these areas. If a school district has been paid more than it is entitled to under state law, the KSDE is to advise the school district of the amount, and the district is required to repay the state. Likewise, if a school district is paid less than it is entitled to, the KSDE advises the state, and the state must pay the district within 60 days of the close of the school year.
This statute requires the KSDE to audit and account for all school finance funding with precision, so that each school district in the state receives precisely that amount of funding called for under Kansas law.
The refusal of the Kansas State Department of Eduction to audit its distribution of funds is the antithesis of the precision called for by law. It leaves the Legislature, and every school district in the state, without an effective remedy to fund our schools according to the law.
Jim Denning is Kansas Senate Majority Leader.