- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Supreme Court justices questioned Friday whether the Legislature had the constitutional right to scrap the state’s old school funding system and freeze spending levels while it looked for a new system for paying for public education.

A three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel found in June that the state’s temporary strategy for financing 286 school districts and cuts to state aid for low-income school districts were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court approved Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s request for a stay on the order while he pursued an appeal.

At issue are legislative efforts to comply with a lawsuit filed by four districts claiming that funding is inadequate. Lawmakers in 2014 approved a $140 million school funding increase in an effort to comply, the state contends. However, it later was determined that funding levels fell short by $54 million, with poor districts affected.

Then earlier this year, a law enacted by top Republicans with Gov. Sam Brownback’s support replaced the state’s per-pupil formula for distributing aid to districts with stable “block grants” based on what districts received previously. Attorneys for the schools say poor schools again are being shortchanged.

Justice Marla Luckert questioned whether the funding changes hit poorest districts the hardest, noting that if equity was affected, “don’t we have a constitutional problem?”

Justice Dan Biles similarly noted that $54 million funding shortfalls last year and this year affected poor districts, asking: “How is that fair?”

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the four Kansas school districts suing the state, said the court needs to take “prompt action” to fix funding shortfalls. He is requesting, among other things, the $54 million that he said poor schools have been shortchanged for the past two years.

“Simply, this needs to be fixed,” Rupe told the court. “The kids of Kansas deserve nothing less.”

Rupe said the schools want the money this calendar year, which could prove challenging.

The court heard arguments the same day that state officials and university economists issued new projections for state revenues, slashing estimates for what the state will collect from now through June 2017 by $354 million. Brownback’s administration immediately announced $124 million in budget adjustments to avert a deficit in the current budget.

Stephen McAllister, an attorney for the state, defended the Legislature, saying that the 2014 funding increases were a “big improvement.” He also defended as “appropriate and laudable” a decision to move to block grants while lawmakers rewrite the school funding formula during the next two years. Brownback and some GOP legislators had argued that the old formula was too complicated, didn’t get enough dollars into classrooms and sometimes forced unanticipated increases in state aid.

Attorney for the school districts, however, say the temporary funding formula harms districts, because it provides no mechanism for them receiving additional money if their enrollment grows or they begin serving more needy students.

“They can’t throw out a system and create an unconstitutional system,” Rupe said.

And Justice Eric Rosen asked why the Legislature didn’t just continue with the current funding system while it looks for a replacement system.

“They want predictability over the next two years,” McAllister, an attorney for the state, said. “We are in fairly tight budget times.”

Friday’s argument dealt mainly with ensuring money is distributed fairly. The justices won’t take up until spring whether the state must boost its annual spending by at least $548 million to address concerns about overall funding levels.

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Online:

Kansas school funding case: https://bit.ly/1McxBMP

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This story has been corrected to show that Rupe said the schools want the money this calendar year and that could prove challenging, not co-counsel John Robb.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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