Baldwin superintendent finds little definitive in Kansas Supreme Court education funding ruling
Anyone looking for a definitive answer about what the ruling the Kansas Supreme Court released Friday on K-12 education funding means for the Baldwin City school district will have to ask someone other than Superintendent Paul Dorathy.
He couches his responses with words like “could,” “might” and “may.” Those qualifiers are necessary because of the complexity of the ruling and the uncertainty of the Legislature’s election year response, Dorathy said.
The only thing Dorathy would say with near certainty was that the ruling will have no consequence on the amount of state per-pupil aid the district will receive next year.
The Supreme Court assured that when it sent back to a lower court the big question of the level of per-pupil aid the state should provide Kansas school districts, Dorathy said. Because of the review process that will require, and the almost-certain legal appeal back to the Supreme Court that will follow, the ruling won’t affect per-pupil funding levels until the 2015-2016 school year, he said.
The surprise in the ruling was the different approach the court took from the last time it ruled on the question of adequate state funding for education in 2006, Dorathy said. In that earlier ruling, the court found the state was underfunding state school districts by $440 million annually.
Friday’s ruling had no such dollar amount, Dorathy said. Instead, it remanded the adequacy question back to a three-judge panel with instructions it apply seven criteria the Kentucky courts used to address that question.
But another part of Friday’s ruling could have more immediate consequences for Baldwin, Dorathy said.
The court unanimously ruled that state “equalization aid” payments, which support the local-option budgets and capital outlay funds of school districts with smaller tax bases, needed to be restored and gave the Legislature until July 1 to do so or have the three-judge panel find remedies. State equalization funding was eliminated five years ago when the recession created state budget shortfalls. They were not restored when the economy improved.
The Kansas State Department of Education reported Friday it would cost the state $129 million for the 2014-2015 school year to fully restore the equalization funds, Dorathy said.
Should the Legislature agree to do that, the Baldwin school district would receive state aid for both funds, Dorathy said. The state aid would not increase the amount of revenue the district’s local-option budget would raise but would reduce the amount of local tax dollars needed to support it. That would mean a lower mill levy and break for local taxpayers, Dorathy said.
State aid to the capital outlay fund would be different because that money is in the form of matching funds and would allow that overall budget to grow, Dorathy said.
There are, however, legislative options to address the equalization problem that wouldn’t increase state aid to the two funds, Dorathy said.
That appeared to be the process some Republican leaders were endorsing at a press conference Friday with Gov. Sam Brownback. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the Supreme Court’s decision on equalization didn’t include a dollar figure and there might be other ways to respond.
The Supreme Court's ruling came the day after the Baldwin school board had a special meeting to discuss reallocation of funds and budget cuts as it starts work on the 2014-2015 district budget. No decisions were made at the meeting, which included executive session discussions with each of the district’s four building principals to discuss personnel.
After those private meetings, the board briefly reviewed such things as increasing the district’s transportation fee, staff life insurance tweaks and energy saving options.
Dorathy said the goal was to reallocate funds, raise some additional revenue and cut costs so that personnel cuts can be avoided, but he said salaries were the district’s biggest expense and where the largest savings could be found.