Government & Politics

Six asks high court to spurn school suit

TOPEKA — The Kansas attorney general asked the state Supreme Court on Thursday to reject an attempt by school districts to reopen litigation over state funding.

The districts make up the group Schools for Fair Funding, which filed a motion with the Kansas Supreme Court last week. The motion contends the state is out of compliance with the court's 2006 ruling that forced the state to increase funding for public schools by $1 billion.

Attorney General Steve Six argues in a 14-page document that lawyers for 74 school districts are trying to get around a 2005 law that slows down such cases.

That law requires the Legislature to be given notice 120 days before plaintiffs can file a lawsuit over school funding, Six said. The law also requires the case to be heard by a three-judge panel.

"This unprecedented motion is an attempt to evade the new procedures," Six wrote. "Inasmuch as plaintiffs seem to allege a constitutional violation beginning in 2009 and want a new trial in the district court, and nothing from this court but an order sending them there, there can be no other explanation."

John Robb, attorney for the school districts, said the group is asking the court to reopen the case because it is cheaper and quicker for all parties than filing a new lawsuit. The original case was filed in 1999 by the parents of Ryan Montoy, a student in the Salina school district.

"I don't think that law applies if the court agrees to reopen and finish the Montoy case," Robb said. "But that's a decision that will be left up the court to decide."

Robb plans to file a response to the Six document.

Education funding has been reduced over the past year as the state has faced declining revenue. The school districts argue the cuts hurt the quality of education. Six said in his reply that Kansas has experienced "dramatic changes" that have forced the state to reduce government spending to meet its constitutional obligation to have a balanced budget.

"Economic calamity and resulting state budget reductions cannot be the basis for opening up a case first filed in 1999 and dismissed by this court in 2006," Six wrote. "Kansans understand that no one is immune from funding cuts, and what is 'suitable' in good times may be different than when times are not so good."

In their motion to the Supreme Court, the schools cited a school finance case in Arkansas that was dismissed but later reopened by that state's Supreme Court after legislators reneged on promises to increase funding. Robb argues a similar situation exists in Kansas.

The Kansas Supreme Court dismissed the Montoy case in 2006 but didn't rule whether changes made to the Kansas school finance formula or levels of funding were constitutional. The justices said any new challenge to the school funding formula would have to come in a new lawsuit filed in district court.

Also Thursday, five superintendents from districts of varying sizes told the Senate Education Committee how budget cuts have affected public education.

After-school tutoring, new textbooks, buses and summer school have all been cut by districts during the recent budget shortfalls, they said.

The Wichita school district added about 900 students this year, but didn't have the money to add more staff to accommodate the numbers, superintendent John Allison told the committee.

"Our ability to serve those student and to react... have definitely been impacted," he said.

Previous rounds of cuts have already been absorbed by vacant positions and putting off large purchases, Augusta school superintendent Jim Lentz told lawmakers.

Any further cuts will mean the district will have to cut positions, he said.

"We can't cut enough other stuff to keep from getting into personnel," Lentz said.