No settlement, no surprise

Clock is ticking on school funding negotiations

By The Mercury

Kansas state Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who is the House minority leader, isn’t the only person not surprised that mediation efforts to resolve the school finance lawsuit have been unsuccessful.

In fact, a breakthrough would have been a surprise — a pleasant one at that.

The Kansas Supreme Court, which may end up having to rule on the case, had ordered the negotiations after a three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled in January that the state’s system of funding public schools was unconstitutional. The panel indicated that the state was providing about $440 million less to schools than it should have been providing.

The Shawnee County judges’ ruling that state funding was unconstitutionally inadequate was the second such ruling in less than a decade. The earlier ruling, which the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously upheld in 2005, led to a massive boost in state spending and generated legislative resentment that continues to this day at judicial “interference” with the Legislature’s role in funding public schools.

Unfortunately, those funding increases ended with the recession. Worse, a succession of funding cuts to cope with drastic revenue shortfalls stemming from the economic downturn essentially returned funding to pre-lawsuit levels. Those funding cuts and the Legislature’s refusal to restore lost funding even after the economy improved are what led to the present lawsuit. Among that lawsuit’s plaintiffs are the Wichita, Kansas City, Hutchinson and Dodge City School districts.

In accordance with confidentiality agreements, representatives of both sides had little to say after attorneys told the Supreme Court of their inability to reach a settlement.

The Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in October, has ordered the two sides to continue to seek a settlement, not just until the October hearing but perhaps until the Supreme Court issues a ruling.

Given the districts’ insistence on substantially higher funding and the Legislature’s rejection of such demands, a settlement seems unlikely.

While Rep. Davis was observing the considerable distance that separates the two sides, Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick said legislators are paying close attention to the case.

“Our focus,” said Rep. Merrick, “is on creating an education environment in Kansas that is child-centric, that will instill a love of learning and prepare students to succeed after graduation.”

That’s something both sides agree on. Where they continue to differ is how much money is needed to achieve those goals.

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