Finance legislation passes, keeping Kansas schools open

People calling for adequate and equitable funding for Kansas schools marched around the Statehouse on Thursday, June 23, 2016, in Topeka.
People calling for adequate and equitable funding for Kansas schools marched around the Statehouse on Thursday, June 23, 2016, in Topeka. The Kansas City Star

A special session of the Kansas Legislature ended Friday night as lawmakers passed a school finance bill to avoid a shutdown of the state’s schools next week.

The Senate voted 38-1 to approve the bill after less than 15 minutes of discussion. That followed the House’s passage of the bill, 116-6.

Moments before the Senate vote, Gov. Sam Brownback said he would sign the bill when it comes his way.

“I really want to congratulate the Legislature for acting so quickly and cleanly on getting this issue resolved,” Brownback said. “They have done, I think, a fantastic job.”

The action came after Kansas lawmakers pivoted Friday and dumped their earlier school finance plan in favor of another proposal that won’t cut money from every school district in the state.

The plan boosts aid to poor school districts by $38 million, just as a previous plan from Republican leaders did. It redistributes some funds from wealthier districts to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to make the education funding system fairer to poor districts.

The Kansas City, Kan., school district would end up gaining about $2.6 million in funding, while the three large Johnson County school districts would still lose money, but less than the previous plan.

Blue Valley would lose about $2.4 million, Shawnee Mission about $1.4 million and Olathe about $75,000.

It does not rely as heavily on reshuffling of existing education dollars as the previous plan, however. That part of the bill had drawn opposition from some Republicans and Democrats.

Blue Valley superintendent Todd White was pleased with the bill that eventually passed.

“When it comes down to it, we have to have a ‘we before me’ attitude,” White said.

The bill lawmakers passed takes money from the planned sale of assets of the Kansas Bioscience Authority to cover $13 million of the aid to poor schools. The authority was set up a decade ago to nurture bioscience businesses. If the sale doesn’t cover that cost, money will be taken from the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund.

The plan also taps motor vehicle fees and dips into the state’s share of a national legal settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.

To Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, the crisis was only solved for the moment.

Kansas is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by four school districts, and legislators were fashioning a one-year funding fix ahead of a potentially more contentious legal and political battle over schools next year. The immediate issue was complying with the Supreme Court’s mandate to make the distribution of state aid fairer to poor school districts.

Rooker was one of the Republicans who led the charge for a different plan than the one proposed Thursday, which would have cut 0.5 percent from each school district in the state. Rooker said Friday night that the new bill was a “safe harbor” that would put the issue to rest for now.

“This was not me alone,” she said. “There was a group of us that felt that frustration. We heard the voices rising from the public and the stakeholders.”

The new bill was announced halfway through the day, but it took much of the afternoon for the proposal to be finalized and presented.

“This was triage,” Rooker said. “The state has a number of different areas of crisis going on. This was the most immediate. … Performing triage, this is a plan I can be supportive of and I’m pleased we reached the consensus we did.”

Alan Rupe, the Wichita lawyer for the districts whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court order, said he supported Friday’s new legislation. The plaintiff districts will now submit a brief to the court, saying they consider the equity portion of the lawsuit satisfied with this bill. That would effectively guarantee that schools will stay open in August.

“Done. Score a victory for Kansas kids,” Rupe said.

GOP leaders’ first plan cleared committees in both chambers Thursday. But dissension among Republicans forced House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, to send the plan back to committee for a rewrite.

A sense of urgency came from the Supreme Court’s warning in its recent ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30 if lawmakers didn’t make further changes. Many have programs, serve meals to poor children and provide services to special education students during the summer.

The state has been in and out of legal battles over education funding for decades, and the latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Kansas City, Kan.; Dodge City; Hutchinson and Wichita school districts. Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to its schools.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that the education funding system remains unfair to poor schools despite three rounds of changes over the past three years.

Cynthia Lane, Kansas City, Kan., superintendent, said Friday the issue was funding schools in a constitutional way, and she is happy the Legislature found a bipartisan remedy.

“It’s not about the money for us. It’s about doing what’s right for the kids,” Lane said.

The court is considering separately whether Kansas spends enough overall on its schools — and could rule by early next year. Brownback and GOP legislative leaders already have committed to overhauling the education funding system next year.

With less than a week to finalize a plan to keep Kansas schools open, House members spent the morning waiting to discuss the issue on the floor while senators debated a constitutional amendment to keep the state’s Supreme Court from putting them in this position again. The amendment failed by one vote.

During a Senate GOP caucus earlier in the morning, some worried that the move during a special session, instead of during the regular session, could look vindictive to voters in the August primary and November general election.

Democratic Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, Kan., said the bill was a “temper tantrum” by members of the Legislature who are upset with the court’s decision.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.