- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A judge struck down the state’s system of educational funding yesterday, saying it is “inadequate and inequitable” therefore unconstitutional.

Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock said the state must close its public schools this fall while it fixes flaws in its system for distributing school aid. But because the case has already been appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, it was not clear whether schools actually would close.

Dan Biles, an attorney for the State Board of Education, said an appeal of yesterday’s order could stay Judge Bullock’s order past the start of the new school year.

The judge’s decision came just three days after legislators adjourned the 2004 session without acting on his December order to fix the state’s school finance system, which he found to be unconstitutional.

Judge Bullock issued that preliminary ruling in a 1999 lawsuit brought by parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina school districts. He concluded that the state’s system for distributing $2.77 billion in aid is unconstitutional partly because of how it distributes money to programs for poor and minority students.

He also found the existing level of funding to be inadequate because the state constitution requires “suitable provision” for funding schools.

Judge Bullock wanted legislators to change the system during their 2004 session, setting a deadline of July 1 to make his order final. Legislators responded by passing a law allowing the state to immediately appeal the preliminary order to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The order was quickly dismissed by Republican legislative leaders, who already had said they planned to pay it little heed, given that the case is already on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“It’s ridiculous,” House Speaker Doug Mays said.

But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said it was “truly unfortunate” that children, parents and teachers must pay the price of legislative inaction.

“This situation could have been avoided had the Legislature done its job during the session,” Mrs. Sebelius said. She said she would review the judge’s ruling before deciding what to do next.

Judge Bullock said his ruling “will terminate all spending functions under the unconstitutional funding provisions, effectively putting our school system on ‘pause’ until the unconstitutional funding defects are remedied.”

He continued: “Although this action may delay our children’s education slightly (should the other branches fail to respond quickly), it will end the inadequate and inequitable education being provided now.”

Judge Bullock said there were “literally hundreds” of ways legislators could structure, manage and fund public schools. He said that legislators could determine inefficiencies in the present structure and that those corrections might even reduce the total dollars needed to fund education.

He said he would issue a restraining order preventing the spending of any state or local money on education after June 30, as soon as the plaintiffs formally request it. That means yesterday’s order will not affect the current academic year.

John Koepke, executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said: “At this point, nothing Judge Bullock did would come as a surprise. Judge Bullock made clear in his preliminary order his frustration that the Legislature has let things deteriorate.”

During the trial, attorneys for the Salina and Dodge City school districts presented a study suggesting that schools were underfunded in Kansas by more than $800 million.

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