Saturday, December 20, 2014

‘Talking about quite a bit of money’

By DOUG CARDER, By ABBY ECKEL and By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writers | 3/7/2014

On the eve of the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on public education funding, Jeanne Stroh said Thursday it felt like Christmas Eve.

“You don’t know if you’re going to get that pony or a lump of coal,” Stroh, Ottawa schools superintendent, said.

On the eve of the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on public education funding, Jeanne Stroh said Thursday it felt like Christmas Eve.

“You don’t know if you’re going to get that pony or a lump of coal,” Stroh, Ottawa schools superintendent, said.

On Friday morning, it appeared the court handed Stroh — and other educators across the state — a set of reins.

Schools for Fair Funding, an advocacy group and coalition of 48 school districts, was claiming a “partial victory” in the courts Friday for Kansas public school children.

The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the Kansas Constitution and ordered the state to pay nearly $130 million to the schools by July 1, Schools for Fair Funding representatives said Friday.

The balance of requested funding will be determined after a lower court redefines the meaning of “adequate” education.

Schools for Fair Funding brought the current lawsuit — Gannon v. State of Kansas — in 2010 following state budget reductions that began in 2009. The lawsuit asked to restore funding to constitutionally required levels. A district court unanimously ruled in favor of the school districts. The decision was appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Stroh, who was assistant superintendent of Hutchinson schools before coming to Ottawa July 1, testified before a panel of three district judges who were assigned to the case in the lower court. The Hutchinson school district was one of the plaintiffs in the Gannon suit.

One of the key points of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, Stroh said, was it remanded base state aid per pupil back to the panel of three district judges in the lower court to redefine the meaning of adequate education.

“And the [Supreme] Court told the Legislature to work on wealth disparity [among districts],” Stroh said.

TAXING PROBLEM

In the past, the Kansas Legislature addressed disparity between school districts with high property values and those with low property values by providing funding to the school districts with lower property values called equalization aid. The Legislature scaled back that funding, and capital outlay hasn’t been allocated since cuts began in 2009. Aid for supplemental operating costs, known as local option budgets, also has been prorated and not funded at 100 percent.

Consequently, school districts turned to local taxpayers to replace equalization aid.

For Ottawa, the funds the district lost when state cuts began in 2009 equals 5.9 mills in the school district’s local option budget, Stroh said.

One mill equals a little more than $117,800 in the Ottawa school district, Stroh said, for a total of $695,020.

“So you can see we are talking about quite a bit of money,” she said. “That’s money that local taxpayers are having to pay, because of the state cuts.”

Regaining some of that state aid could provide relief to local taxpayers who have had to shoulder the additional cost of educating the district’s children, Stroh said.

The Gannon suit sought to restore the cuts that have been made to all schools after the Legislature failed to abide by the Montoy settlement — an earlier legal challenge to state funding of public education brought by the same organization.

The issue in that litigation was also whether the state had met its constitutional obligation to make “suitable provision” of resources for K-12. In 2006, as a result of the lawsuit, the Legislature agreed to phase in an additional $755 million in school funding annually over three years, the organization said. Before the phase-in could be completed the Legislature cut more than $511 million from the classrooms, Schools for Fair Funding representatives contended.

A hush fell over the Kansas-Missouri Superintendent Leadership Summit Friday morning in Kansas City, Mo., Stroh said.

“We took a break about 9:25 so the Kansas [school] superintendents could review the document,” Stroh said. “For about 10 minutes, there was no sound in the room. We were all poring over the document.”

Stroh was referring to the state Supreme Court’s 110-page decision regarding state funding for public education.

 As fate would have it, Stroh said, several of the superintendents from the school districts that served as plaintiffs in the case were attending the leadership summit and had a chance to huddle and talk about the decision.

“[The Supreme Court decision] is complicated, and it will take some time to go through it, but we’re happy about it,” Stroh said.

In terms of the ruling, the court affirmed the right of the students and the school districts to take the issue of school funding to the courts, Schools for Fair Funding said in the news release. On the issue of funding schools, the court will require the Legislature to fund $25.2 million in capital outlay equalization and $103.9 million in local option budget funding by July 1, the release said. Additional funding could be determined after the lower court rules on the definition of “adequacy.”

The Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling came as no surprise to Dotson Bradbury, he said, as schools haven’t seen necessary funding for the past few years.

“Currently LOB [local option budgets] is prorated. We’re not receiving 100 percent of that. And in capital outlay, we’re not receiving student aid and haven’t for a number of years,” Bradbury, West Franklin schools superintendent, said. “I don’t believe this would be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with school financing and budgeting that those two areas have been underfunded for some time.”

No school district knows at this time how much money it would be receiving, Bradbury said, but it could mean a decrease in mill levies.

“It will mean additional dollars should the court’s action be upheld with additional dollars in capital outlay,” he said. “As to how many, it would be speculative on my part.”

WEIGHTY DECISION

The ruling has been a lengthy process and seems like it’s been a long time coming, Bradbury said, but he knows the court was deliberate in its findings.

“Our Constitution calls for checks and balances. That’s why we’ve had a Constitution and a democracy so that there is check-and-balance system, and this simply reaffirms we do have that system,” he said, “and that each branch of the government has an equal share and responsibility and equal authority, so it simply reaffirms our Constitution and democracy.”

When schools saw funding dwindling, many made cuts to their staff, after school programs and other areas just to get by, Bradbury said, and in the midst of it all, the children lost learning opportunities.

“It certainly has caused us to look at every penny we’ve spent,” he said. “I think our teachers have done a marvelous jobs, as well as building administrators. Would there have been additional opportunities? Absolutely, but our kids and teachers have done an incredible job as has our board in wisely using the resources we did have available. Were our kids hurt? I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were hurt, but did they lose out on opportunity? Absolutely.”

There wasn’t much more than a few positive remarks from Jerry Henn, Wellsville superintendent, as he scrolled to the bottom of the 110-page state Supreme Court document on his computer early Friday morning in his office. He was pleased with the ruling, especially the use of the Rose Test in the case, which stems from the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990.

“I still see that as a positive thing because it sort of makes the state equal throughout the entire state,” he said.

The current base state aid per pupil is $3,838. Henn also agreed that the ruling will be positive for area taxpayers.

Ottawa’s Stroh said she thought the Legislature would abide by the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

“This is really about being able to provide all kids with the same [educational] opportunities — regardless of the system, their age and background and regardless of what zip code they live in,” Stroh said. “We may have some different ideas and opinions, but we’re all Kansans and we all want to give our kids the best education possible.”

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