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Kansas school finance case nears court date

Published on -5/26/2012, 3:25 PM

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- As schools across Kansas head into summer recess, attorneys representing 54 school districts will be heading to Shawnee County courtroom to challenge the way the state funds public education.

It is the second time this decade that the Kansas school finance formula has been under judicial scrutiny. The last dispute resulted in legislators increasing school spending by nearly $1 billion.

But declining state revenues caused by the Great Recession starting in 2008 prompted the state to roll back much of that new spending, leading school districts and parents to file a new lawsuit compelling the state to restore funding. The trial begins June 4 and is expected to last most of the month. A decision is almost certain to be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Attorneys John Robb and Alan Rupe have been involved with litigation challenging the Kansas school finance since the 1990s. Robb said they thought when the Kansas Supreme Court released the case in 2006 that it was over for litigation "other than monitoring." The current case was filed in 2010, when funding required by the court began to slide.

"It's just surreal. It's been clients calling and saying the state is reneging on the deal," Robb said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office has hired a Wichita law firm to represent the state in the case, said that while education spending has been reduced since 2006, the state hasn't seen the dramatic erosion in student achievement that many predicted would occur. He said the evidence suggests "that the correlation between spending and outcomes is not as tight as the Legislature was led to believe."

"The economic crisis that started in 2008 and in some ways endures until today is unprecedented in modern U.S. history. The Legislature did a remarkable job in minimizing the effect on public education," Schmidt said.

Lawmakers kept school funding at or above 2006 levels. For the 2012-13 school year, they put an additional $40 million into K-12 spending, or about $59 more per student. But Robb pointed out that lawmakers are cutting income taxes and the state is projected to have more than $500 million in reserves. He said lawmakers should have put even more money in education.

"Now their true colors are showing," he said. "The economy is improving. They are going to have good ending balances but they are all having selective amnesia at the peril of the Kansas education system."

The tax cuts, approved by the Legislature this year and signed by conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback are projected to have dramatic implications for the state budget for the next six years. Brownback disputes that cutting income tax rates will leave Kansas unable to fund education, saying the state will meet its obligations.

Robb contends that academic requirements will continue to increase for schools over the next six years and funding will be unable to keep pace.

"We don't think that meets constitutional muster for funding schools," he said. "The income tax issue probably strengthened the case."

Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the case comes down to the plaintiffs crying foul and the state wanting to see the bruises. He said attorneys will be using student data to try to prove their cases, more so than in any school funding lawsuit to date.

"School districts have done everything they can to hold the line, but invariably the changes in funding begin eroding that progress from quality and equity of education viewpoint," Tallman said.

The trial will be before a three-judge panel. The format is a change from the last lawsuit that was heard and decided at the lower court by Judge Terry Bullock. Legislators created the new format specifically for school litigation. Appointed to hear the case are Judges Franklin Theis, Robert Fleming and Jack Burr.

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The case is Gannon v. State of Kansas, No. 10-C-1569.

Shawnee County Courts: http://www.shawneecourt.org

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