The Kansas Supreme Court issued its ruling Friday morning on a lawsuit against the state filed in 2010 by several school districts, claiming the state did not adequately fund public schools.
The long-awaited decision ruled against the state saying that certain school funding laws failed to provide equality in public education as required by the state constitution. The case was returned to Shawnee County District Court to enforce the court’s decision and to reconsider whether school funding laws provide adequacy in public education.
Local school district leaders think the ruling was a partial victory, but would only be a small step to curing projected budget shortfalls.
“I think the court made two clear distinctions on what to expect,” Hillsboro Superintendent Steve Noble said. “One, the court chose not to rule on the adequacy issue, and instead kicked that question back down to the lower court. But they clearly stated that state funding must be equitable for all Kansas districts.”
While this will not make up much ground on the nearly $500,000 plus shortfall Hillsboro, Marion/Florence, and Peabody-Burns school districts are each projecting in the next three years, it will ensure more state funding for the districts.
“The ruling says that the state has the obligation to equalize funding opportunities for all districts in capital outlay and local option budget,” Noble said. “Over the past few years the state has not kept funding equal.”
This lack of equalization hit Marion County schools hard because they have lower than average tax bases. This means the state supplements poor districts more in capital outlay and local option budget, but because of budget cuts at the state level, the amount of state aid to poorer districts was cut leaving local taxpayers to make up the differences.
“The state has until July 1, according to the ruling, to fix it,” he said. “If the state kicks in their portion to fully equalize that means we could see $157,512 added to our local option budget funding.”
Because local option budget is funded through property taxes, schools won’t see that money directly, but residents should see a decrease on their property taxes, which have been making up the difference in equalization funding for the past few years.
The capital outlay fund, which the districts use to pay for facility improvements and replacements were also found to not be equal by the court ruling. If the state complies with the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling, Hillsboro will see an $89,650 increase, Noble said.
“This would be real dollars to help us do more with our facilities,” Noble said. “This would be things like repairing roofs or buying new computers, anything that can be classified as long-term facility improvement or repair.”
According to the ruling, if the state takes no action before the July 1 deadline, courts can mandate the state to pull the funds from its general fund.
Districts around the county would also see some money added back into its budgets.
Peabody-Burns Superintendent Ron Traxson said the ruling was a step in the right direction.
“The court did their job and now it’s time for the legislators to respect the Constitution,” he said.
Traxson is skeptical as to how the state will budget for the mandated increases the ruling caused.
“There will be things they will do to try and change the ruling so they can continue to cut takes, which will make this ruling difficult to fund,” he said. “Legislators took an oath to uphold the constitution and if they ignore the ruling than they will breach that oath. It will be interesting to see what other things come out of this ruling.”
State Sen. Clark Shultz said he believes the court was reasoned and balanced in its ruling.
“Education funding, with all its formulas, is complicated in Kansas and I think this ruling is trying to strike a balance that recognizes that the state does not have unlimited resources,” he said. “At the same time the court is stating that they do have the authority and duty to review the formula and to rule on the constitutionally of the formula.”
He believes a large portion of the legislative session will now focus on the issue in an attempt to satisfy the ruling.
“I do think there will be action taken and do not believe that the legislature will ignore the ruling,” he said. “It will become more clear in the next few days what action the legislature might consider.”
State Rep. Don Schroeder also believes the ruling is fair.
“I have been concerned that the path being taken by the legislature for several years would lead back to unequal educational opportunity,” he said. “I expect some type of action will be taken by the legislature, but don’t know what that may be.”
If the state adheres to the ruling in its entirety, school districts could see equalization money in time for the 2015 budget year. However, the state raising the per-student base rate is the key to battling large budget shortfalls.
“That’s the part that was kicked back to the lower court,” Noble said. “The court basically said ‘We’re not going to say how much money you have to pay per student.’ They kicked that part back to court so that if the state makes good on the equalization pay, then after July 1 they can reevaluate the funding formula used to evaluate base pay and see if the funding levels are adequate or need tweaked.”
Noble said in a perfect world the state would increase base pay per student and Marion County schools would see an increased enrollment.
“In my opinion, I think we could help kids even more if we got more funds,” Noble said. “We’ve cut to the bones, many districts have. We’re starting to get into cuts where it could really hurt the students.”
USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker thinks the ruling was a favorable outcome, but believes school districts won’t have an answer about base pay per student for at least a year.
“Where it goes from here no one knows yet,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a ruling for awhile because the base rate is a much bigger factor in school funding than equalization.”