State ask Kan. courts for mediation in school case

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Gov. Sam Brownback have asked the Kansas Supreme Court to stay a lower court's ruling on school finance and send the case to mediation.

The documents were filed Thursday in Topeka in response to a Jan. 11 ruling in Shawnee County District Court that said the state's system for funding K-12 schools was unconstitutional. The lawsuit also alleged that Kansas reneged on promises to abide by earlier court rulings to increase education spending, ordering the state to increase school spending by more than $440 million in the 2013-14 school year.

The state immediately filed notice that it would appeal the ruling. No court date has been set.

Brownback said in a statement that it is the Legislature's duty to set funding for schools but lawmakers owe it to taxpayers, parents, teachers and students to discuss a way to solve the dispute "to the satisfaction of all involved."

"It is my hope that through staying the decision and allowing all interested parties to give input on how to best fund our schools and get more money into the classroom, our state will maintain its reputation of having great schools and great educational opportunities for our children," the Republican governor said.

Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing parents and school districts in the lawsuit, welcomed the state's desire to find a settlement.

"It depends on what the state proposes," Rupe said. "If the state is truly interested in the public school kids of Kansas and not just buying time and not stepping up to the plate to pay for adequate education, it's not going to get resolved."

The state Supreme Court said in 2005 and 2006 rulings that the Legislature is constitutionally obligated to finance a suitable education for every child, suggesting that the state could face continual increases in spending. Lawmakers dramatically increased funding for schools after those rulings but backed away from their promises during the Great Recession.

The Shawnee County ruling cited the Legislature's duty under the education article in saying that current school funding is inadequate. The three-judge panel rejected the state's arguments that legislators did their best to maintain state support for public schools and that there was little statistical evidence that the cuts had hurt student achievement.

Legislators said that mediation was a good alternative, but motives for that effort differed.

"I think it's a great idea to make sure the two sides are talking together, to make sure both sides know the position of the other, to see if there's any middle ground to resolve it from a policy perspective instead of from the litigation perspective," said Senate President Jeff King, an Independence Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

But House Minority Leader Paul Davis said any settlement would require legislative action to implement, adding that Brownback's budget proposal for the next school year provided "minimal increases" in school spending.

"I'm not sure how the governor and attorney general are going to find a resolution when they don't have the power to take unilateral action on school funding," said Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

Rupe said mediation failed in the earlier school finance case, which led to the Supreme Court's ruling in 2005. He said the renewed effort to find a settlement was contradictory to positions taken by the state during the district court trial in 2012 and proposed constitutional amendments sought by legislators and Brownback to change how appeals judges are selected and another rewriting the language regarding education.

The Senate has approved the changes in judicial selection and King's judiciary committee is expected to hold hearings in the coming weeks on changing the education article in the Kansas Constitution.

"I'm kind of like the spouse who receives flowers and immediately wonders what are they up to, Rupe said. "Their offer to mediate is inconsistent with how they have behaved in this litigation from the beginning."