Government & Politics

Johnson County parents’ school funding lawsuit dismissed

A school finance lawsuit filed by a group of Johnson County parents in federal court may have reached its end.

But an attorney in the case said the plaintiffs could refile depending on how the state handles school funding in the months to come.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced Wednesday that Petrella v. Brownback was dismissed last month. The dismissal ended a roughly six-year legal battle between parents from the Shawnee Mission school district and the state of Kansas.

The parents were challenging Kansas over the state’s ability to cap local spending on schools. The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that this limit violated constitutional rights, including their right of free speech. The cap was designed to help equalize school funding between poorer and richer school districts across Kansas.

Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the parents’ case. The plaintiffs then waited to see how the school finance debate in Kansas played out before agreeing to dismiss the case last month.

“We have successfully defended Kansas law against this challenge in federal court,” Schmidt said in a statement.

Another school finance case, Gannon v. Kansas, is ongoing. The Kansas Supreme Court is scheduled to hold oral arguments in that case starting Sept. 21. This part of the lawsuit addresses the adequacy portion of school funding for all Kansas schools. The previous equity portion of the Gannon case led to the Legislature’s special session in June.

Tristan Duncan, an attorney for the Johnson County parents, said it made sense to “let the dust settle” and decide later whether to continue on with the lawsuit.

“We decided rather than just keeping the case stayed, it would be better to voluntarily dismiss temporarily until we can see what the (school finance) scheme would end up being,” Duncan said. “If we have to re-file to protect the rights of the Shawnee Mission school families and the school district, we will.”

The state under-funds Shawnee Mission, Duncan said, and with the cap in place there’s no way for local districts to overcome it.

Equal distribution of state funding for schools was at the heart of June’s special session. The Legislature’s $38 million solution satisfied the Kansas Supreme Court by giving more money to poorer school districts. Though local property taxes help fund district schools, Duncan said that the value of Shawnee Mission homes doesn’t define a school district’s wealth.

“The fact that the Shawnee Mission school district, relatively, has higher property wealth doesn’t make it a wealthy school district,” Duncan said. “It’s in fact one of the poorer school districts in the state because the money it’s allowed to spend in the classroom is so low.”

Under the special session legislation, the Kansas City, Kan., school district gained about $2.6 million in funding. However, Johnson County districts like Blue Valley ($2.4 million) and Shawnee Mission ($1.4 million) lost funding in the redistribution.

The Gannon case will continue to loom large in Topeka when the Legislature resumes in January. Lawmakers are facing the challenge of developing a new school finance formula because the state’s block grants for school funding expire in 2017.

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the Kansas school districts suing the state in the Gannon case, said he’s focused on his case and that his outlook on school finance hasn’t changed.

“I think the Petrella plaintiffs are as interested in the issue of adequacy as the Gannon plaintiffs,” Rupe said. “What remains is the question of adequacy and that is if there is adequate funding in the system, then additional money may not be necessary locally if the needs of the kids are met and the cost of an adequate education are paid through the state system.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw