- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A lawsuit over funding for Kansas’ public schools threatens to upend the state budget that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature struggled to balance - and pass - with higher sales and cigarette taxes.

Lawmakers ended their longest-ever annual session by increasing taxes an estimated $384 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1 to avert a budget deficit. But Brownback acknowledged that state aid for 286 public school districts remained a “wild card.”

Twice, a district court has ruled that the state must boost its aid to public schools by at least $548 million a year to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. The state has appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The same three-judge panel has yet to rule on the constitutionality of a school funding law enacted in March. The law junked the state’s previous, per-student formula for distributing aid and replaced it with “block grants” for districts designed to make funding more predictable. An appeal is expected, regardless.

Here is a look at the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget and how the school funding case could affect it:

A NARROW BALANCE

The state’s budget problems arose after lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy.

This year’s tax increases would finish erasing a projected budget deficit of about $800 million, after numerous other adjustments, though GOP legislators anticipate Brownback will trim $50 million in spending, so that the state has a projected cushion of $86 million in cash when the state’s 2017 fiscal year begins.

That said, legislative researchers’ projections don’t allow for the huge increase in school funding the court has ordered.

SCHOOL FUNDING HISTORY

The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts sued in 2010, along with parents of more than 30 students.

The case already has been reviewed by the Shawnee County District Court panel and the Kansas Supreme Court. In March 2014, the high court ordered the state to increase its aid to poor school districts, and the Legislature complied.

But the Supreme Court returned the case to the district court to determine whether the state’s total annual aid of more than $4 billion is adequate. The panel said it is not, and the issue is back before the high court.

THE NEW LAW

Republican legislators were frustrated by how the old formula put the state on the hook for higher-than-expected costs if districts had more students than anticipated or a higher percentage had extraordinary needs, such as learning English.

The new “block grant” law sets each district’s funding through the 2016-17 school year. GOP legislators also trimmed $54 million from the aid districts thought they would receive for the just-ended school year.

Both the new law and the cut in aid - a “reduction of the increase” according to the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees - are being reviewed by the district court panel.

John Robb, an attorney for the four school districts, said the state is constitutionally obligated to base its aid on the costs of providing a suitable education.

Instead, he said of the new law: “It’s a not-too-veiled system that determines, politically, what do we want to spend?”

WAITING ON THE COURTS

The Legislature is likely to wait for a state Supreme Court decision on school funding issues before acting further. Robb believes the high court could rule by the end of the year, but acknowledged it could take longer.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, said he doesn’t think the district court’s next decision, “whatever it is … will move anybody into action.”

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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