Gov. Sam Brownback is calling the Kansas Legislature into special session to try to avert a Supreme Court showdown that could close schools July 1.
“After discussion with legislative leadership, I have decided to call a special session to keep Kansas schools open, despite the court’s threat to close them,” Brownback said in a written statement Tuesday. He did not set a date.
The Supreme Court compelled the governor and the Legislature to action when it ruled May 27 that the state’s funding formula for schools was inequitable in its support of poorer school districts and therefore unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling, in the long-running Gannon v. State of Kansas case, gave the Legislature until June 30 to change the formula. Failing to do so, the court ruled, would mean that money on education could not “lawfully be raised, distributed or spent.”
The ramifications of that order have been under debate, and it remains to be seen whether a divided Legislature will be able to agree on a remedy — or whether lawmakers should be responding to the court.
But anxious school leaders throughout the state were relieved that Brownback was bringing the lawmakers together to try.
“This is a good thing,” said David Smith, spokesman for Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools, which is one of the four plaintiff districts in the Gannon case. “The Legislature had to come back, and it could only happen if the governor called for it. … We’re glad that uncertainty is gone.”
Schools were nervous because many lawmakers who think the court was overreaching its authority were calling for the Legislature to defy the court and not meet.
Brownback, in his statement calling for the special session, said he was doing so despite his opposition to the court’s action.
“It is distressing that the Kansas Supreme Court has put the schools and Legislature of Kansas in this position over less than 1 percent of school funding,” he said.
Brownback referred to the roughly $40 million that would be needed to boost the formula, about 1 percent of the overall $4 billion of public funds spent on Kansas schools. But the $40 million is linked to the roughly $500 million that school districts can generate in local option budgets — which is the area of the formula that concerned the court.
If the schools were forced to shut down, it would happen when school is not is session for most of the 286 districts in the state. But school leaders say the ramifications could run deep. A shutdown could interrupt summer nutrition programs, cripple building construction projects and stop paychecks, health insurance benefits and other payouts.
Many also fear a shutdown’s impact on the state’s economy and reputation.
“We’re still trying to attract schoolteachers,” said Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White. “Each day that passes (without resolution) … is not good for school districts, the state or the education profession.”
Democrats had been collecting signatures this week in a petition to try to force a special session, and some Republicans also were urging Brownback to bring the lawmakers back.
Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she was writing a letter to Brownback, urging him to call a special session, when she heard word of his announcement Tuesday. She said she still might send her note to tell him that the uncertainty is disrupting people’s lives.
She said she has heard from constituents and teachers who just want legislators to go to Topeka and fix the mess.
“I don’t see that the Supreme Court overstepped its bounds at all,” Gallagher said. “I hope in the end people will do what’s right for school kids in Kansas. They need to set the rhetoric aside and stop the finger-pointing of blame.”
Opposition to the court could still be in play during a special session.
Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican, said lawmakers should discuss putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would ban the courts from closing schools if the issue arose again. He pointed to a 2005 law that was passed during a previous school financing feud and that the Supreme Court hasn’t addressed.
“The court seems to think they have unlimited powers,” Melcher said. “I just happen to fundamentally disagree with that. … The courts are not going to allow this issue to go away. If we gave them what they wanted, they would come back with something else. They have never been able to be satisfied.”
Some legal experts think that a law banning courts from closing schools would not stand up to a challenge. They say the Legislature can’t limit the court’s constitutional powers. But Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, thinks the law should be considered.
“I don’t want to have some kind of showdown in the middle of the street,” he said, “but on the other hand I think it is important that every branch of government follows the law.”
The lawmakers have been challenged in the budgeting process by the legislative majority’s decision to continue support of income tax reductions pushed by Brownback in 2012. The call to return to session comes soon after lawmakers learned that state revenue in May came up some $75 million short of projections.
Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat, said lawmakers need to tackle both school finance and taxes, two issues that she says are intertwined.
“Well, we don’t have any money, so we’ve got to come up with money somewhere if we’re going to make the courts happy,” she told The Wichita Eagle. “I mean, if we’re going to come back and be responsible, that’s exactly what we need to do.”
If lawmakers can’t find a way to inject new funding into the formula, they will be faced with redistributing funds from some districts to others.
“We need to understand that this is not going to be an easy task,” said Mark Tallman, an associate executive director with the Kansas Association of School Boards. “I do not know why the governor has not set a time frame, but it needs to be as quickly as possible. This definitely brings us a step closer to solving the problem.”
It’s time for lawmakers to work quickly and efficiently, said Alan Rupe, the Wichita attorney representing the four plaintiff districts.
“The sooner the better,” he said. “We don’t want to see another generation of Kansas kids not educated because they didn’t receive equity and adequacy in their education.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said she and colleagues she has spoken to are ready to get to work.
“Sure, there will be contention, but I think we’ll get it done,” Clayton said. “I think we will be able to get this done once and for all for equity.”
Next up will be the adequacy phase, which the court has yet to rule on.
“Baby steps,” Clayton said.
School leaders said they are eager to help resolve the funding conflicts.
“The only viable option (to ease the crisis) was for the Legislature to convene to discuss how to address the opinion of the court,” Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson said in a written statement. “We … stand ready to work together with lawmakers on a long-term solution to the school funding issues in Kansas.”
Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry said: “We’re very optimistic that this will be positive and will mean a solution.”