- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas Supreme Court is turning its attention to whether the state is spending enough money overall on its schools, speeding up the timetable for its consideration of the issue.

The justices issued a brief order Wednesday setting oral arguments for Sept. 21 and gave the parties until Aug. 12 to file any supplemental written arguments.

Its scheduling order comes just a week after the Supreme Court signed off on a new education funding law that boosts state aid to poor school districts, ending a threat that the state’s public schools would be shut down.

That resolved only a small part of a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts. The phase coming up in September is a much larger part of the case because it deals with whether Kansas is meeting its duty under the state constitution to finance a suitable education for all children, whether they live in rich or poor areas.

The court wants the parties to also address during oral arguments in September a lower panel’s ruling last year that the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million. It wants to hear about what changes, if any, may be appropriate if the court ultimately upholds the panel’s ruling that education funding overall is inadequate for public schools.

“They are rolling up their sleeves and addressing the adequacy issue with the kind of urgency everybody hopes they would use because of the situation with Kansas kids,” said Alan Rupe, who represents the school districts who sued. “Adequate funding, of course, affects every kid in Kansas, and the equity issue affected some of the kids in Kansas.”

The lawsuit was filed against the state by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts.

“Kansas has great schools, which are funded at a record level of $4 billion,” Eileen Hawley, spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback, said in an emailed statement. “This amount of funding is constitutionally appropriated by the Kansas Legislature, and we will not speculate about any outcome at the court.”

Not lost to court observers is that the accelerated schedule for arguments means a decision could potentially be handed down before the November elections - which come amid dissatisfaction among GOP conservatives who control the state Legislature with recent court decisions requiring lawmakers to boost spending on public schools.

“Only a body of activist judges planning to strike down the law regarding the adequacy of school finance would set hearings so close to the November election,” Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said in a statement. “It begs the question - who has turned our children into pawns in this legal matter and made school funding a political issue?”

Groups supportive of the Republican governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature are looking to oust four of the five justices up for retention elections in November, enabling Brownback to select their replacements to the seven-member court. Court supporters contend the effort is an attack on the independence of the state’s judiciary.

“If they decide before the election it is going to have an impact one way or the other on the issue of judicial retention,” Rupe said. “What I admire as a lawyer about this ruling that just came out and the order on the briefing and the timing is that it is clear this court is independent and is not backing down to any public sentiment that they shouldn’t take up the issue of adequacy.”

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