Democrats look to join Kansas school funding talks

State Democratic leaders said Friday they want to be part of negotiations aimed at settling an education funding lawsuit.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka and House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said they expect to file a request Monday with the Kansas Supreme Court to get involved. They said they'll suggest that GOP legislative leaders be a part of the talks as well.

The state is appealing a ruling from a three-judge panel in Shawnee County, ordering legislators to increase the state's annual spending on public schools by at least $440 million. The Supreme Court ordered mediation in the lawsuit last week and gave the parties until Friday evening to agree on a mediator. If they couldn't, the court planned to appoint someone.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2010 by the parents and guardians of 32 students and the Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., school districts, after the state backed off from previous promises on its education funding. The state is the only defendant.

“I'm not optimistic that mediation is going to lead us anywhere, but the fact of the matter is, the court has ordered us to mediate,” Davis said during a Statehouse news conference. “If we are going to mediate in good faith, legislative leadership must be at the table.”

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. John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the parties who filed the case, said if there are talks, legislators ought to participate because they would have to approve any settlement.

The Supreme Court has set a conference call for Monday to discuss the schedule for the case.

Brownback successfully pushed for massive income tax cuts last year, and he and many fellow Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature would like to phase out personal income tax cuts in an effort to boost Kansas' economy. That goal is at odds with providing huge short-term increases in school spending.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said while Democrats didn't tell them of their desire to intervene, he'll review their request with interest.

“We all want a solution to the education problems facing our state,” Merrick said in a statement.

The Kansas Constitution requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision” for financing the state's “educational interests,” which the Supreme Court has said means lawmakers must finance a suitable education for every child. Rulings in 2005 and 2006 led legislators to promise large increases in spending on public schools, but they backed off during the Great Recession.

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Site for school funding lawsuit's plaintiffs: http://www.robblaw.com/html/school–finance.html