Archive for Thursday, June 9, 2005

Kobza cautious in wake of Court ruling

June 9, 2005

Eudora USD 491 Superintendent Marty Kobza said he wasn't yet spending the money the Kansas Supreme Court says is due his and other Kansas school districts.

The Kansas Supreme Court released a unanimous opinion Friday, finding the Kansas Legislature's plan to increase state spending to state school district's by $142 million was constitutionally inadequate by half. In doing so, the court ruled the Legislature must find another $143 million by July 1.

The school finance bill the Legislature passed this spring was a response to a Supreme Court ruling handed down in January that first found education inadequately funded.

"I really don't know that it's over yet," Kobza said. "I know that there are those in the Legislature who don't believe the court can tell them how much they can spend. Just how that will play out, I don't know."

Just how chaotic things could become was illustrated in an e-mail Kobza received Tuesday. Apparently originating from Rep. Frank Miller, R-Independence, it suggests potential strategies, including impeachment of all six Supreme Court justices for violating separation of powers to accepting the Court's funding mandate with provisions allowing school vouchers.

The drama will start to unfold in a special session of the Kansas Legislature that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius called Monday to meet the court's "directive and timetable." The special session will start June 22.

Kobza said the court's ruling wasn't a surprise to him and shouldn't have been to state lawmakers. Although it didn't specify an amount, a Supreme Court ruling handed down in January signaled judges wanted the Legislature funding increased to an amount in line with a 2001 study it commissioned, he said.

"It still comes back to the same thing," he said. "They commissioned a study, they didn't like its results, and they ignored it. The ruling brings them back full circle."

State Rep. Anthony Brown said the Legislature had ordered a legislative audit due before the next regular session in January 2006 that was to examine the cost of education. The Eudora Republican said the call for that audit and the school finance package approved this spring was a good-faith effort to address the Supreme Court's January ruling. He anticipated the Court might strike down pieces of the school funding legislation but not the entire plan.

The Kansas Constitution gives the Legislature the right to appropriate state funds, Brown said.

"I would question the Court's ability to appropriate money," he said. "I'm not sure how the Legislature is going to react to that.

"When they put a specific number on it, it's kind of disappointing to see that kind of activism from the Court."

Brown said he couldn't predict how the special session would play out. There were many ideas swirling around the Internet, he said.

"I want what's best for the kids in Kansas," he said. "Unfortunately, it's out of my control. It's going to be a political fight between the governor and conservative Republicans in the Legislature."

Expanded gambling, budget cuts to other programs and tax increases have been suggested as means to meet the Court mandate. Brown said it would be difficult to get a tax increase through the House, especially a 10- to 15-percent increase needed to meet the Court's demands.

"I would be reluctant to raise taxes to that extent," he said. "Right now, we have the state of Missouri lowering taxes to make that state a much more attractive place to do business."

The package the Republican-controlled Legislature passed this spring in response to the Court ruling would have also allowed local districts to increase their local option budget mill levies, and allow 17 districts said to be in high cost-of-living areas to raise additional money through property taxes to help with teacher salaries.

In an action that pleased Kobza, the court struck down both those sections, saying they would only increase disparity between rich and poor districts.

Should the Legislature fund schools on a level near that the court mandated without substantially changing other parts of the state's complicated funding formula, the district would be in line for about $500,000 more than it received for the 2004-2005 school year, or double what it was to get under the plan the Legislature passed, Kobza said.

Although thankful for the Supreme Court ruling, the superintendent said he was not ready to prepare a 2005-2006 budget in anticipation the Legislature would act on the judges' views. He was preparing preliminary budgets based on no added state revenue, the $250,000 increase due from the Legislature-passed bill, and the doubling of that amount the Court ordered.

"If anything happens close to one, we'll adjust from there," Kobza said.

Adding pressure to the financial ambiguity is the state mandate the Eudora School Board approve a budget for publication in July, Kobza said.

Brown said he understood the difficulty of Kobza's position.

"I do feel for those guys," he said. "They have to start school in a month and a half, and they don't know what their baseline is going to be."

The district budget was stressed because of the growth-driven need to add five and one-half teaching positions for the next school year, Kobza said. Room for those salaries was found through cuts in other areas, he said.

If additional money were forthcoming because of the ruling, a priority would be teacher compensation, Kobza said.

"I think the biggest thing again is negotiations," he said. "That's something the Board has an interest in -- both salaries and benefits."

The teachers' contract with the district has expired, but negotiations are on hold while both the district and union wait for developments in Topeka, he said.

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