Northeast Joco

Judge declines to dismiss school funding lawsuit filed by Shawnee Mission parents

A federal judge has decided not to dismiss a lawsuit from Johnson County challenging the state of Kansas’ cap on how much money residents in a school district can raise through taxes.

The state sought to have the suit thrown out, but Senior U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum ruled that the plaintiffs, all parents in the Shawnee Mission School District, can continue pursuing claims that the cap violated their constitutional rights of equal protection.

The parents say the Kansas Legislature acted without a rational basis in the way it altered the state’s funding formula.

Lawmakers rewrote the formula in 1992 and heavily revised it in 2005 and 2006, mostly to increase funding in response to a lawsuit filed by dozens of school districts claiming the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools.

As part of the formula, districts were restricted in how much money they could raise beyond what the state provided so wealthy school systems wouldn’t have an unfair advantage over poorer ones.

Now because the formula provides districts additional money for serving low-income and non-native, English-speaking students, many poor districts receive more money from the state than wealthy suburban ones like Shawnee Mission. The parents say that means their equal protection rights are being violated because districts are limited in what they can raise, and districts that receive less through the formula aren’t allowed to make up the difference through local funds.

While allowing that claim to go forward, Lungstrum also rejected a due process claim that says the cap impairs parents’ rights to fully fund and support education. He wrote that the court “will not create a hitherto unrecognized unlimited fundamental right to spend one’s money on education without restriction.”

An attorney for the parents, Tristan Duncan, said she believed the parents would prevail in proving the cap is “intended to insure that our school district remains unequally funded and there is nothing meaningful we can do to overcome the intentional underfunding.”

“That is not the American Way, which is founded on liberty, equality and local initiative to provide for our children,” Duncan said in a written statement.

In March 2011, Lungstrum dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the parents couldn’t seek to raise property taxes above the cap because it could bring down Kansas’ entire school funding system.

However, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in October 2012 that the plaintiffs have legal standing to pursue the case.