Kansas school funding dispute heading back to high court

March 18, 2015

— A dispute over whether Kansas must boost its spending on public schools by tens of millions of dollars each year is headed back to the state Supreme Court.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office notified a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court this week that the state will appeal a recent ruling from the panel in a school funding lawsuit. That ruling affirmed a decision by the same panel in December that the state must spend at least $548 million more a year on aid to schools to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child.

The Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill this week to overhaul how the state distributes more than $4 billion in aid to its 286 school districts. The measure is headed to GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and promises education funding increases — but far less than the lower-court panel's target.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the parents of more than 30 students and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts and touches on two major issues. One is whether the state's total spending is adequate and the other is whether the money is distributed fairly among poor and wealthier school districts.

The Supreme Court last year ordered lawmakers to boost aid to poor districts, and they did, appearing to resolve that part of the lawsuit. But the aggrieved school districts asked the lower-court panel to reopen the "equity" issue, and the panel scheduled a May 7 hearing.

The Supreme Court also told the lower-court panel last year to determine whether the state is spending enough money on schools overall, leading to the panel's ruling in December. Schmidt's office appealed that decision to the Supreme Court and also asked the lower-court panel to reconsider.

The Supreme Court declined earlier this month to take the appeal immediately, and the lower-court panel last week reaffirmed its December decision.

"We're headed back to the Supreme Court for further guidance," Schmidt said in a statement Tuesday. "Unfortunately, we will have to do so without further clarity from the panel."

In an order Friday setting the May hearing on the equity issue, the three judges also said they could "protect the status quo," signaling that they might temporarily block the new school funding law from taking effect.

John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the aggrieved school districts, said his clients expect all issues ultimately to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

"Our preference would be that it all gets there at the same time, and we don't do this piecemeal," he said.

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