Lawmakers without addressing the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to fix inequities in school funding by June 30 or risk closure of the state’s schools.
It’s unclear when – or if – they will return before the deadline. That has increased anxiety about a potential shutdown.
Here are some questions you may be asking:
Q. How likely is a statewide school shutdown?
A. Many are optimistic that Kansas lawmakers will craft some type of solution before the June 30 deadline. But the prospect of a shutdown “is becoming more serious with every passing day,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
If the Legislature is making progress toward a fix, the court could extend its deadline. Or, it could lift its stay of an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County, which said the block-grant funding law is unconstitutional.
In any case, many lawmakers and school officials think the justices are serious about closing schools.
“We continue to believe this is just too serious to not get resolved,” Tallman said. “We’re encouraging people not to panic but telling them they really do have to start thinking about what this might look like.”
Q. Does the Kansas Supreme Court have the authority to shut down schools?
A. Courts can propose and require remedies in their rulings. However, the court has no army, so it depends on elected officials to carry out its orders.
“Defying the court is done in American politics,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, “but at the cost of delegitimizing the foundation of the rule of law in the state and country.”
Q. Has this happened before – in Kansas or elsewhere?
A. Experts say this has never happened in another state, but we have come close once before in Kansas.
In May 2004, Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock ruled that school funding was inadequate and inequitable and ordered schools closed. The Kansas Supreme Court stayed that order, lawmakers crafted a fix, and schools never shut their doors.
This time, though, it’s the state Supreme Court that’s threatening to shut down schools if lawmakers don’t respond with a fix in time.
Q. How would a shutdown work?
A. According to the court order, unless funding is equalized by June 30, the state would not be authorized to raise, distribute or spend money on schools. Exactly what schools could or couldn’t do, however, has not been defined.
“Nothing the court has said would indicate that at the stroke of midnight on July 1, you’d have to padlock schools,” said Tallman, the lobbyist. “What it says is you can’t spend money. So I think, for a few days, you could potentially operate – until you have to pay a bill.”
After that, he said, it’s anyone’s guess.
“It may not be until the court issues further guidance that we really know,” he said. “That’s what I know is deeply frustrating to people, but it’s simply the truth.”
Q. How big a deal would a shutdown be during the summer? Aren’t schools closed anyway?
A. Even though classes aren’t in session, summer is a busy time for most school districts.
Schools do much of their hiring of teachers and other staff during the summer. Crews clean, repair and ready buildings for a new year, and they maintain and inspect school buses. Some districts operate summer child care programs or driver’s education, as well as programs that provide federally funded free meals for children.
Wichita officials have said that any shutdown, even a brief one, could delay enrollment and the start of the next school year.
Q. What about summer school?
A. Summer school in most districts is done by June 30 and would not be affected by a shutdown.
Q. What about student records?
A. Any shutdown that affects district computer systems or the employees who staff them could block families’ access to transcripts for college, scholarship or job applications, or to verify grade point averages for insurance discounts.
Q. How would a shutdown affect the state’s economy?
A. Collectively, the state’s 286 school districts spend more than $6 billion a year, according to the Kansas Department of Education. Public education represents about 67,000 full-time jobs – about 5 percent of the total non-farm payroll in the state.
Wichita, the state’s largest district, is the metropolitan area’s third-largest employer and pays out about $50 million a month to employees and vendors.
If schools shut down and people aren’t working, they would no longer have taxes withdrawn from their paychecks, and state revenue would take a hit. There could be further damage to the economy as those workers put purchases on hold and, depending on the length and scope of a shutdown, could qualify for unemployment.
Q. Would districts have to shut down everything – utilities, computer systems, building security?
A. Basic utilities and security are needed to protect taxpayer assets, officials said. For example, shutting off power to buildings during the hot summer months would increase the chance of mold or other potential problems.
Q. How long would it take – and what would it cost – to shut down technical systems?
A. Most school district computer systems are not designed to shut down entirely. Backing up data and sequentially shutting systems down in Wichita would take about two weeks, district officials said. It would take another four weeks to restart and verify connections to all systems, including the Synergy student information system, they said.
It’s unclear precisely how much a complete shutdown and reboot would cost.
Q. Would teachers and other district employees get paid?
A. Earlier this year, fearing that a shutdown could become reality, many Kansas teachers opted for a lump-sum summer paycheck. Those employees will receive the balance of their annual compensation this month rather than spread over June, July and August.
Q. What about employees’ health insurance?
A. According to most district officials, part of contingency planning for a shutdown includes finding a way to make sure health claims are paid during that period.
Even so, if district human resources and benefits offices close during a shutdown, there wouldn’t be anyone to provide customer service to employees.
Q. Would school construction projects continue?
A. Because most major projects are paid for with bond money, work likely would continue even if schools close, district officials say. However, repairs and other projects paid for with capital outlay money could run into delays.
Q. What about students who receive special-education services over the summer?
A. Some students who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for services beyond the normal school year. Such extended school year (ESY) services can include speech/language therapy, occupational therapy and more.
Educators say they would be required to provide services to those students during a shutdown, but “That’s another one that’s unclear,” Tallman said.
“It’s not been addressed. Even if you could (spend federal special-ed money), there may be state money involved in the people who would essentially write the check,” he said.
Q. Would a shutdown affect online schools?
A. Probably. Because the court order applies to all public K-12 schools, it would affect online as well as traditional schools.