- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A district court panel in Kansas declared Friday that key parts of a new state law for funding public schools violate the state constitution and ordered an immediate increase in aid.

State officials and an attorney for four school districts challenging the law said the decision from the three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court would force the state to provide between $46 million and $54 million in extra aid next week, distributing the money under an old formula that legislators junked.

The same panel ruled in December that the state must boost its annual spending by at least $548 million to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. In its latest ruling, the panel of judges said school funding changes this year make the distribution of more than $4 billion a year less fair.

The new law scrapped a per-student formula for distributing aid to Kansas’ 286 school districts. Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservative Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature disliked the old formula partly because it automatically left the state on the hook for additional spending if schools gained students, if more students had special needs or even if districts had major building projects.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt notified the Kansas Supreme Court that he would appeal the decision; the high court already is reviewing the panel’s December ruling. Brownback and other Republican leaders condemned Friday’s ruling.

“The opinion itself is, to put it as kindly as possible, utter nonsense,” Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, said in a statement.

Top Republicans also described the decision as highly political. The judges issued it shortly after legislators adjourned their annual session for the year.

But Democratic legislative leaders praised the decision and said it showed that Republicans who controlled state government had failed in their constitutional duties. And John Robb, a Newton attorney representing four school districts that sued the state, said it was a big victory for them and their students.

“The Legislature continues to try to skirt the constitution and not fund schools,” Robb said. “The court said, ‘No.’”

The new law took effect in April and under it, school districts would receive their state aid in predictable grants based on what they received for the recently completed 2014-15 school. While the amounts would rise each of the following two years, much of the increases would be consumed by higher contributions to teachers’ pensions.

Brownback and Republican legislators who drafted the new law said it made funding stable. But critics said because it doesn’t automatically adjust funding to reflect changing conditions in each district, it hurts districts that see enrollments rise or an influx of poor students or those needing to learn English.

The three-judge panel said moving to grants violated the state constitution and deemed the change “pernicious.”

While the three judges said the state must return to using a per-pupil formula for distributing its aid, they put that portion of their decision on hold for the Supreme Court to review.

The new law was challenged by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts.

The four districts sued the state in 2010, and legislators boosted aid to poor school districts last year to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in the case. But the high court returned the case to the lower-court panel to review additional legal issues.

The new law also cut the aid all districts expected to receive during the current school year by roughly $50 million, or about 1.1 percent, to help balance the state budget. Kansas’ budget problems arose after lawmakers cut taxes in 2012 and 2013 to help stimulate the economy.

Supporters of the new law noted that even with the reduction, school districts still received far more money from the state than they had during the 2013-14 school year. But the three-judge panel cited the loss of aid as one reason that key provisions of the new law are unconstitutional and ordered lost funds to be restored.

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Online:

Judicial panel’s ruling: http://bit.ly/1LBfrba

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

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