Government & Politics

Kansas Supreme Court to allow new school funding law to go into effect during review

A new school finance law passed by the Kansas Legislature and signed by the governor will be allowed to take effect while the state Supreme Court reviews it.
A new school finance law passed by the Kansas Legislature and signed by the governor will be allowed to take effect while the state Supreme Court reviews it.

The Kansas Supreme Court will allow the state’s new school funding law to go into effect while justices decide whether it is constitutional, eliminating the possibility that schools will run out of money at the end of June.

In an order late Monday afternoon, the court said it will hold off on any further action before deciding the law’s constitutionality.

The justices will hear oral arguments on the new law July 18. A decision could come soon after.

The Legislature passed, and Gov. Sam Brownback approved, a new funding plan that will boost education spending. But attorneys for a number of school districts that launched a lawsuit years ago challenging the state’s funding levels say it is not enough.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, called the court’s decision ahead of oral arguments a “wonderful surprise.” The court had given the state a June 30 deadline to enact a new formula, and school districts across the state could have faced a shutdown if the court did not let the law take effect.

“I am breathing that same sigh of relief that our school districts across the state are likely breathing tonight. I am very relieved that schools can continue to operate and function,” Rooker said. “This is a big deal that the June 30 deadline is not being enforced and this new law will be allowed to take effect.”

Rooker said she believes that lawmakers will likely have to put more money into the formula at some point, but that the court may give the Legislature until 2018 to do that.

David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said given the fact that Brownback only signed the law 15 days before the deadline, “allowing it to go into effect while the court set a date to hear oral arguments is probably the best outcome that districts, families and students could hope for. “

The uncertainty about funding had impeded districts’ ability to plan for the next school year.

“This allows us to go forward with planning for at least the next month, which is important, given all we have to do to get ready for the beginning of school,” Smith said. “The question of what happens after the Supreme Court rules is still open, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Kansas City, Kan., is one of four districts that has been suing the state since 2010 over funding levels.

Erin Little, director of communications for the Shawnee Mission School District, thanked the area’s legislative delegation in a statement but offered a word of caution: “Although today’s decision by the Kansas Supreme Court does allow some relief as we proceed with our budgeting process for next year, uncertainty still exists as we wait until the court renders a final decision after July 18, 2017.”

Neither the attorneys representing the districts nor the state wanted a school shutdown. Both sides agreed to allow the law to go into effect while the court deliberates, the order said.

“We didn’t want there to be a gap between the school closing date and the decision,” said attorney Alan Rupe, who represents the districts. “So it was basically a no-brainer to keep that in place until the court reached a decision.”

Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, called the order “good news.”

“It gives the districts some assurances about how to move forward past that sunset date,” Willis said.

Wichita public schools had outlined numerous consequences if June 30 came and went without a funding system in place. Meeting payroll, payments to vendors and maintenance would become problematic, the district warned.

Schools could still be disrupted, however, if the court rules the law unconstitutional in late July and requires immediate action from the Legislature.

Districts must typically publish their budgets in early August. It’s unclear whether lawmakers could act fast enough to allow districts to comply with the requirements.

The school finance formula is designed to better target funding for at-risk students than current law does. The Supreme Court cited underperformance by a quarter of Kansas students in its ruling. The bill also funds all-day kindergarten.

Judith Deedy, executive director of Game on for Kansas Schools, a Johnson County parents organization, said the group was pleased with the court’s decision.

“We think this provides necessary short-term certainty to our schools and allows them to continue their work over the summer,” Deedy said in a statement. “We also look forward to seeing the court’s decision on the formula passed by the legislature and its assessment of the adequacy of the funding levels. We are aware of the depth of the state’s financial problems, but had hoped for higher funding, given our experience with budget constraints over the past several years.”

For Kansas City-area school districts, the bill boosts general state aid compared to the 2015-16 school year, according to the Department of Education. The bill also funds all-day kindergarten and adds early childhood funding.

The added funding for school districts means:

▪ Blue Valley would see a roughly $7.78 million increase.

▪ Shawnee Mission would see an $11.2 million increase

▪ Olathe would see a $9.7 million increase.

▪ Kansas City, Kan., would get a $9.6 million increase.

The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, would receive about $17 million more in general state aid next year under the plan. Beyond Wichita, 230 other districts also would receive additional general state aid, and 55 would lose general state aid.

“Certainly as we look at new monies coming in, a lot of that stream is at targeted programs,” Willis said. “That’s something we need to keep in mind as we make our plans for funds coming to us.”

The bill would give schools overall about $195 million more in the next budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.

The order indicates the districts that sued plan to challenge the constitutionality of the new law. The Kansas Constitution has been interpreted previously to require both adequate and equitable funding among districts.

“We’re going to argue not only the adequacy but the equity piece, too,” Rupe said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, in a court filing last week, said the new funding formula complies with the court’s previous opinion.

“Senate Bill 19 … is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose standards,” Schmidt wrote, referring to educational benchmarks the court has used previously.

The Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler contributed to this report.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman