Government & Politics

Should courts be able to close schools? Kansas senator wants you to decide

Republican state Sen. Dennis Pyle wants Kansas voters to decide before an April deadline whether the state Supreme Court should have the ability to close schools. Above, Wichita North High freshman Alejandra Hernandez reads during “Tower Time,” a time where the entire schools spends half the period reading.
Republican state Sen. Dennis Pyle wants Kansas voters to decide before an April deadline whether the state Supreme Court should have the ability to close schools. Above, Wichita North High freshman Alejandra Hernandez reads during “Tower Time,” a time where the entire schools spends half the period reading. Wichita Eagle

Should Kansas courts have the ability to close schools?

Voters could decide that question as early as this spring under a proposal from a Republican senator.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, and other lawmakers fear the Kansas Supreme Court could close schools this summer if it doesn’t like how the Legislature responds to an opinion it released earlier this fall. They worry the court could block the state’s education funding — cutting off the dollars that districts need to operate — until the Legislature produces a new plan.

In their October opinion, the justices vowed they would no longer be “complicit actors” in inadequate school funding. They said the current way schools are funded is unconstitutional and gave lawmakers until April 30 to tell the court what they are going to do about it.

Pyle wants Kansas voters to decide before the April deadline whether the Supreme Court should have the ability to close schools.

Attorneys for school districts suing the state contend upwards of $600 million in additional funding is needed. An increase that large could require significant tax hikes or deep budget cuts to state agencies.

“Putting the issue of school authority before the voters is a sensible proposal for resolution of these continuing costly legal battles,” Pyle said.

Even without spending more on schools, Kansas will be in the red $156 million beginning in fiscal year 2020 and $415 million in 2021 without changes to the budget, according to figures from legislative researchers.

Under the school funding formula struck down by the court, Kansas is spending an extra $485 million on schools over a two-year period. Lawmakers in June passed a package of income tax increases to generate $1.2 billion in revenue over two years. Kansas spends about $4.3 billion annually on schools.

Lawmakers have questioned the Legislature’s ability — or willingness — to boost school funding by the amount sought by the plaintiff districts.

“This is not a reasonable court. So it’s high time we stood up to them and said, ‘Go pound sand,’ ” said Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat, called a constitutional amendment a waste of time. Rogers serves on the board for the Wichita school district, one of the districts suing the state.

Kansas residents don’t want to see the state Constitution’s education provisions “cheapened,” he said.

“It’s, ‘OK, I’ve lost the game and I want to change the rules and go backwards,’ ” Rogers said of a possible amendment.

Pyle said that by holding a special election it’s possible his proposal could get to voters before the April deadline set by the court and a separate June 30 deadline the court has set for itself to issue an opinion. He said a special election could be held in April.

Some Republican lawmakers have spoken about a constitutional amendment over the past few weeks, but Pyle appears to be the first to make a public proposal. Any constitutional amendment faces a high bar to becoming law: the House and Senate must approve amendments with a two-thirds majority, and a majority of voters must support it.

The push for a constitutional amendment comes from conservative Republicans. Democrats and moderate Republicans have been indifferent or opposed.

That raises questions about whether amendment supporters could find enough votes. Some have suggested less-conservative lawmakers may support an amendment because some Democrats and moderate Republicans voted in favor of the school funding formula that the court struck down.

“Even liberal and moderate Republicans were cut down by this court. So I think there might be an appetite to say unending expensive litigation has got to stop,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, has said a school finance committee may recommend a constitutional amendment. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has said a possible response is altering the constitution to remove a requirement that the Legislature provide “suitable” provision for school funding.

House Republicans are having active discussions about a constitutional amendment, said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. He stressed there’s no consensus on what an amendment would say and said there is no language he currently supports.

“I think it’s worth having the discussion,” Hineman said.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he would look at an amendment, especially if the Supreme Court is threatening to close schools. That would be “the trigger to send it to the folks to let them vote” on a change, he said.

Denning said Monday afternoon he had not seen Pyle’s proposal.

Pyle released his idea as a committee charged with developing a response to the Supreme Court held its first meeting. The committee received overviews of school finance history, but largely held off on debate over how to respond. The panel will meet again later this month.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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