Archive for Thursday, January 6, 2005

Kansas high court demands funds for schools

January 6, 2005

One week before they returned for the 2005 legislative session, the Kansas Supreme Court gave lawmakers 100 days to find a way to provide additional money for state schools.

After his first review of Monday's court ruling finding the state's 301 school districts were constitutionally under-funded, Eudora USD 491 Superintendent Marty Kobza said justices held state lawmakers accountable for their own past actions.

"They really did," Kobza said. "It seems like in every instance they said, 'You're calling for school districts to improve and increase accountability, now give them the money to get the job done."

In the eagerly anticipated ruling, justices reversed Shawnee District Court Judge Terry Bullock's ruling of 13 months earlier on a few points but upheld his finding that the state needed to provide more than the current annual budget of $2.7 billion to meet the constitutional requirement of a "suitable" education.

In doing so, justices cited the Legislature's own study of 2001 that found the state was shortchanging K-12 education by about $800 million. Although the opinion didn't mention that dollar figure, it did say the study expressly told legislators funding levels weren't adequate to provide for an improving education system as required by the Kansas Constitution.

"The court said, 'You commissioned a study, you paid for it, but you're ignoring it," Kobza said.

The Supreme Court opinion ordered the Legislature to find a solution by April 12, warning the justices would provide their own remedy if no action was taken.

Kobza found curious Attorney General Phill Kline's statement calling the ruling "a victory for the state" because it gave the Legislature time to find a solution.

Kline, who defended the state's position in the courts, focused on the sections of Monday's decisions that overturned Bullock's findings that the state school finance formula was unconstitutional because it was unfair to minorities, funneled more money per student to the state's smallest districts, and it allowed districts to get revenue from local mill levies.

If the ruling was a victory for the state on those terms, the judicial order to provide more money for education was certainly a rebuke of the Legislature, Kobza said.

"Justices said, 'Quit politicizing the issue. You have the facts in front of you, but you keep making decisions on the basis of political whim,'" he said.

The justices stated recent funding decisions were not based upon actual costs to educate children but was instead based on former spending levels and political compromise.

The ruling states "increased funding will be required," but also notes the Legislature has many ways to provide additional funding.

Freshman Rep. Anthony Brown said the justices made it clear a tax increase didn't have to be part of the solution. Although he wasn't prepared to say one wasn't needed, the Eudora Republican said he wasn't heading into his first session starting with that assumption.

"Most people I talked to during the campaign know I'm not a big tax-and-spend guy," he said. "I'm not prepared to say I wouldn't support one, but I think we need to look at all avenues before doing that.

"That's the responsible way to do it. I think we're going to look at funding education through other means."

House Speaker Doug Mays appointed a bi-partisan committee to start searching for a solution, Brown said. But he questioned whether the justice's deadline could be met because of the late date of the ruling and its lack of specificity.

"I wish they could have given us something to use earlier," Brown said. "Less than a week before the session starts seems poorly planned.

"Now we're going to be dealing with this on the fly. It would have been nice if we could have had an interim committee working on this."

If a tax increase is part of the solution, it didn't necessarily mean higher taxes in Eudora, Kobza said.

As noted in the ruling, many districts -- including Eudora -- have increased their local option mill levies the past five years as the Legislature failed to keep up with needs, Kobza said. In Eudora and many other districts with limited tax bases, revenue from a 1 mill of property tax levy from the local district was less than what the districts would receive from a 1 mill levy applied statewide, he said.

"Legislators have said they haven't increased taxes but indirectly they have," Kobza said. "They loosened up the local option, forcing us and many others to use it."

In another observation shared in the ruling, Kobza said the Legislature's funding shortfall coincided with increased state and federal demands for increased performance and accountability.

"One of the things we keep forgetting is how many responsibilities have been put on schools," Kobza said. "That's not a bad thing. Those kinds of programs have forced us to do things differently than we have before.

"If we are to meet that mandate we need more professional time with those kids. That's where we've seen the biggest difference, but it takes money."

Even with the Legislature under court order to provide USD 491 more money, Kobza said he would continue making spending decisions on the present school finance model.

"To me it's exciting we're going to get a resolution and according to the Supreme Court, it's going to be increased funding," he said. "But it's a long road to get to that."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.