- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Even before state courts decide whether Kansas spends enough money on its public schools, a lawsuit over education funding is complicating efforts by legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback to close the state’s projected budget shortfalls.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court has notified attorneys that it expects to rule by the end of December in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents of more than 30 students and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. Both sides predict an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which might not rule until 2016.

But the case is affecting state officials’ thinking as they wrestle with predicted budget shortfalls totaling more than $714 million for the current budget year and the one beginning in July. Aid to public schools is the biggest item in the state’s annual budget, and many legislators are wary of cutting it, particularly dollars for classrooms, with the lawsuit pending.

“We’re particularly sensitive to education,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, chairman of his chamber’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. “I think we will protect spending in the classroom.”

The judicial panel in Shawnee County is considering whether the state is meeting its obligation under the state constitution to provide a suitable education for every child.

The case already went to the Supreme Court once, and in March, the justices ruled that past, recession-driven cuts left unconstitutional gaps in aid between poor school districts and wealthier ones. Legislators responded by increasing aid to the poor districts by $129 million for the 2014-15 school year, but the Supreme Court ordered the lower-court judges to consider whether the state’s total spending on schools is adequate.

If the courts order the state to fulfill promises made in 2008, before the state felt the recession, Kansas would have to boost its annual spending on schools by about $450 million. If the courts agree with the four school districts pursuing the lawsuit, the figure would be about $1.4 billion.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt argues that the evidence in the case shows current spending is adequate and said the boost in aid to poor schools earlier this year was “very helpful.”

“My advice is not to undo the progress that’s been made on school funding,” Schmidt said during an Associated Press interview.

Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said he “will continue working to improve education outcomes.”

One option for the GOP-controlled Legislature is rethinking aggressive personal income tax cuts it enacted at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013 to boost the state’s economy. The state has cut its top rate 26 percent, exempted the owners of 191,000 businesses altogether and promised future reductions.

The projected deficits - which are prohibited by the Kansas Constitution - are in the state’s main bank account. It will finance $6.43 billion in spending under the current budget, and aid to public schools is 51 percent of the total amount.

John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the four school districts pursuing the lawsuit, said they’ll be closely watching the Legislature’s debates once it convenes again in January.

“It’s sad that it’s come to that, but legislative experience has shown them they have to watch,” Robb said.

While some GOP senators are floating ideas for backtracking on the income tax cuts, House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, has termed the budget situation “a spending problem.” Masterson and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, aren’t ruling out attempts to trim public schools’ administrative spending outside the classroom.

But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, sees any reductions for schools as problematic with the lawsuit still pending.

“I think you’d definitely be playing with fire on that,” Hensley said.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: https://www.kslegilature.org

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


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